What Should I Do With My Life?

~ 8 minute read

Unlike many questions, the answer to this one can’t be found on Google! Many of you have probably tried that approach and actually were not surprised that your laptop or phone could not provide a nicely packaged response. That’s because none exists.

Your career journey will inevitably include wrong turns to fit into roles not meant for you. Accepting this truth is the first step in your search for your ideal vocation. So, don’t start your exploration with ‘What should I do with my life?’ Begin, instead, with, ‘Who am I?’ – because, ultimately, the answer comes from inside us, from spirit, soul, and intuition. Not from the outside world.

Before this writer attempts to help you embark on your project of self-discovery, it is important that you realize you are not alone in asking such a big question. ‘Who am I?’ is asked by people of all ages. Uncertainty is transgenerational, and in this time of seemingly constant change and crises – economic, political, and health – the question is becoming more common, more enlightening, and more urgent.

Getting from ‘Who am I?’ to ‘Who I am’ naturally requires some internal exploration. To help with our examination and investigation of self, this treatise is going to cite and discuss some pieces of wisdom found in the book Let Your Life Speak, by writer, educator, and activist Parker J. Palmer. Palmer’s exuberant and passionate work, the subtitle of which is Listening for the Voice of Vocation, is not a career guide. It is a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives.

In chapter one of Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes, ‘before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.’ Palmer is resolute in his belief that ‘we have a habit of listening to guidance from everywhere except from within,’ and ‘wearing other people’s faces.’

Of course, living in accordance with others’ values instead of our own results in a life that is sad, inauthentic, unfulfilling, and psychologically costly. To avoid this, Palmer urges us to ‘learn to read our own responses to our experience, so that ‘we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.’

But how we do this? Through his own life story, sharing his discomfort, darkness, and successes and failures, Palmer shows us that dictating vocation to our lives is misguided. He maintains that vocation is received, not created, and that it is discovered within by listening, not by seeking validation or information from the outside world. His methodology for receiving the gift of vocation is as simple – or at least uncomplicated – as it is insightful:

Stop chasing after what we ought to be or do
‘Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the happiness that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.’

Identify our natural gifts and interests
This involves asking those who know us best to reveal what they see as our gifts and talents, and looking back at our childhood and career experiences to evaluate the experiences that ignited passion and interest inside of us.

Learn our limits
This requires looking at the experiences where we have failed, struggled, or felt ill at ease – and coming to terms with the environments and types of work that do not align with our inner voice. While possible with hard work, attempting to stretch beyond our limits incurs a cost. Palmer succeeded at becoming a prestigious scholar, but was miserable in the role. Rather than working harder to ‘make it work,’ Palmer shifted towards a path that aligned with his values, gifts, and genuine interests.

Learning our limits is not a negative experience. It is a clarifying one. To allow this learning to occur, we must distinguish between two kinds of limitations: those that come with selfhood and lead us to where we belong, and those that are imposed by people or forces determined to keep us ‘in our place.’

See ‘calling’ as a direction, not a job title
Palmer details how we are drawn towards the types of environments and work that are in line with our natural gifts and interests, and conversely, how we are pushed away from those that do not align. Your calling isn’t one particular job you were destined to do. It is the experience of living in alignment, in flow with who you are.

Lean into endings as new beginnings
‘When way closes, way will open.’ Palmer uses this phrase often. He tells us that ‘we must take the no of the way that closes and find the guidance it has to offer – and take the yes of the way that opens and respond with the yes of our actions.’ He emphasizes that ‘each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up.’

This writer can speak to the truth Palmer’s eloquent words. I lost a great job and found a greater vocation. I accepted the no of the job continuing and embraced the yes of the time gifted to me by that event. I responded with the yes of my actions, of exploring the possibility of writing for a living. I heeded Palmer’s advice: ‘stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around – which puts the door behind us – and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls.’

Practise self-care
Palmer emphasizes that ‘self-care is never a selfish act.’ He says, quite beautifully, ‘it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.’ He tells us that ‘anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.’

Move through darkness to get to the light
In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer shares explicitly how he had to endure the misery of wrong-fit, unaligned career experiences and depression – multiple times – to find his way. He warns us that ignoring the true self for too long can induce depression: ‘true self is true friend; one ignores or rejects such friendship only at one’s peril.’

Embrace that this journey takes time
The journey from ‘what should I do with my life?’ to ‘who am I?’ and ultimately to ‘who I am’ is the labyrinth of our inner lives. It requires that we live through multiple life and vocational experiences, each offering up new clues, insights, and ‘ways open’ to figure out what authentic vocation is for us.

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer states, ‘As young people we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots.’

The collective goal of Palmer’s methods described above is to lead you to do what you are meant to do, what you are destined to do – so that the Sunday night blues don’t exist, so that you can’t wait to tell friends and family what’s going on at work, so that putting in a bit of extra time is no big deal because you are passionate about your work, so that you do things you love every day, so that you are excited and even a little scared because the future is a stimulating one, so that your creative juices flow and your mind is full of ideas, so that you feel on top of your game, and ultimately so that work feels like play.

Whatever achieves these glorious results is the unequivocal answer to the question ‘what should I do with my life?’ posed in the opening of this discussion. The answer is available to each and every one of us – by following Palmer’s guidance, by doing the work of self-exploration that will lay in front us our strongest gifts. Palmer describes these gifts as ‘those we are barely aware of possessing; they are part of our God-given nature, with us from the moment we drew our first breath, and we are no more conscious of having them than we are of breathing.’

Let Your Life Speak is a compassionate and compelling meditation on discovering your path in life. It will carry you toward a more attentive relationship with your deeper, truer self.

Some of you may be willing and able to independently undergo the reflection presented by Palmer. Others may seek out one-on-one guidance to fully engage in the process. If you decide to work with a professional in the field, find someone whose talents transcend traditional career counseling. Choose someone whose work is founded on the principle of helping others listen to and accept ‘true self’ with its limits as well as its potentials.

QuintessentialYou Design is just one example of a human development program which echoes the questions posed and answers offered by Palmer in Let Your Life Speak. The underpinning of ‘QYou Design’ is that each of us has a distinct ‘blueprint’ and once we identify it, we become our true and best selves – for ourselves, with others, and in the world.

What should I do with my life? Who am I? These are not just big questions, they are transformative ones. Let your life speak, and you will never ask them again.

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