In my experience, the most interesting discussions often emerge from the most random situations. This happened to me a while ago, when stuck between a roll of maki-sushi and a recalcitrant pumpkin, I had the chance to exchange with a good friend on the topic of our callings, or rather lack thereof.
See, we realized in one of these both grateful and excited “Oh dear, thank you for feeling this way too!” moments that we both had the same unaddressed existential issue: We do not feel like we have a calling. No single overwhelming passion, no lifelong conviction we are ready to fight for. We have roaming whims, we are curious beings… and hence we get bored. Quickly. We know a bit about a lot of things but we do not really know shit. And it’s both making us pretty anxious.
We know a bit about a lot of things but we do not really know shit.
OK, I am seeing you coming: first world problem, right? That’s a precaution we both felt like taking before diving deep into the core of the topic: yes, of course, we have healthy bodies, loving partners, and friends, money, a roof, good jobs, a privileged life in a fascinating metropolis that probably a lot of people envy us. It’s basic decency to acknowledge it. And yet. Yet, we happen to battle with the same feeling of roaming inadequacy, of existential inappropriateness, and yes we are bold and selfish enough to allow ourselves to sometimes feel anxious or depressed about it. This feeling exists, and hence I want to talk about it. You probably can’t judge me harsher than I already do, so go on and judge away.
We live in a little creative bubble where the last concern left to most of the lucky people around us is to find their true calling in life. Having a vocation is a recurring social value, something the neoliberal society loves to showcase as the ultimate success story: look at this athlete who gives everything to become an Olympic champion, at this artist who spent dozens of thousands of hours obsessed by her craft, at this chef who battled all odds to finally get his three Michelin stars.
Rationality would acknowledge that chance and circumstances also play a role in these fairy tales, but our society worships the idea of focused hard work. So it’s easy to forget any sense of nuance and buy into this ideal that having a calling and working hard are going to make you talented and successful. Success being the twin worshiped ideal to work.
Another tale our generation also learned very early on in life is the myth of the all-powerful individuality. We were told we were special snowflakes, repeatedly reassured that we could become anything we like, provided we worked hard enough to achieve it, of course.
We were told we were special snowflakes, repeatedly reassured that we could become anything we like
Let’s put aside for another time this interesting Zeitgeist idea that people hold alone and on their own shoulders the entire responsibility for their destiny, and focus on this “anything we like”.
The thing is: I don’t know what I want to be. I feel like I need to be something, but this something never appeared clearly to me. I’ve had salutatory moments of extreme focus, where I got passionate enough about a project to forget myself and the world around it. It IS indeed the best feeling I know. I’ve felt it first at 14 years old, carefully crafting virtual pieces of clothing for The Sims. And then again later writing a fantasy short story. Training for my first race. Researching how to open a vegan frozen yogurt shop. Becoming a decent healer druid on World of Warcraft. Reading about sociology. Learning how to code. Reading about medicine. Designing a website. Lifting weights. Reading about economics. Reading, or maybe even acting about politics. Reading about fitness and nutrition. Learning about feminism. Doing yoga. Taking a vaccinology class. I could go on for a long time.
Are you starting to see a pattern? No? Me neither, and this precisely is the issue. Most of these projects were bursts of never followed-up enthusiasm. Some of these whims stuck with me in a way: they first withered, and then resurfaced later. Some I’ve completely lost motivation in exploring.
I’ve read once that one needs to practice for 10 000 hours to become great at something. How am I supposed to become great at anything if I can’t keep enthusiastic about a project more than 20 days?
How am I supposed to become great at anything if I can’t keep enthusiastic about a project more than 20 days?
How am I supposed to convince anyone that I am not a complete fraud at any craft when I’ve spent my entire professional life so far looking for any opportunity to do something NEW? Anything new. I even left aside management responsibilities once, to happily get into answering customer support tickets, because it was unusual and breaking with my routine (and anyone who ever had to deal with blunt idiocy, cryptic grammar and dramas involving the tragic loss of a magic virtual sword knows this is neither piece of cake, nor a particularly enticing calling).
My friend gave me a possible key to this issue: maybe we do not need a calling to be happy. Maybe we can simply enjoy what we have (and it’s a lot!) and find solace in the moment. Maybe we can keep on exploring and surf the next wave. Maybe we need to let go of this very egotistical idea that we need to become Someone, that we need to succeed outstandingly at something.
Or maybe, maybe the key to overcoming this constant feeling of guilt is to do something of, and about, our idle privilege. Strive to make the world a fairer place? Reclaim a sense of political action in a system where even the “elites” feel like empty shells tossed around by the necessities of an overwhelming and fateful “reality”?
Even from that angle, nothing is obvious and the possibilities of action are as uncertain as ever shifting.
Maybe we can simply enjoy what we have (and it’s a lot!) and find solace in the moment.
I am still wondering, though, if people with a calling actually are so different. Maybe they are exactly like me, but they did not have the choice nor the freedom to ever try anything else. Maybe a piano teacher beat their fingers until they bled. Maybe their family needed them to do this very one and unique craft they became great at so they could survive. Maybe the path they think they carved for themselves was a straight highway.
Or maybe they were touched by some kind of grace that I can’t understand.
In any way, I can’t simply believe in one straight answer and leave it there.
I am way too curious.