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What Is Your Calling in Life? | Jeffery A. Thompson

What Is Your Calling in Life? | Jeffery A. Thompson


Twenty-five years ago my dad dropped me off
at Deseret Towers for my freshman year at BYU. I felt lonely in my dorm that first night,
so I took a walk around campus at dusk. I remember looking at all of these stately buildings
and envisioning their walls reverberating with great thoughts and words of wisdom. I
was awestruck. In fact, I think that was the night I fell in love with BYU. Now, as a BYU professor, I have the humbling
responsibility to be one of the voices reverberating within the hallowed walls. I often question
whether I measure up. But I’m unspeakably grateful to do the work I do and to do it
here at BYU. I believe I have found my calling in life, and it brings me immense joy. I’d like to ask each of you a personal question.
What is your calling in life? If you don’t know yet, how will you find out? I have asked those questions to hundreds of
students over the years. Usually, it creates a lot of anxiety. Some of you lose sleep over
which class to take next semester, let alone what you should be when you grow up. Some
of us grown-ups haven’t really figured it out either. For many, deciding what to do
with your life can feel like a personal crisis that doesn’t go away. As I begin my remarks, I want you to understand
that finding my calling in life was not easy. My career path was circuitous, and I often
felt great anxiety about it. I always knew I wanted to care passionately about my work,
but for years I had no idea what that work should be. Several times I felt utterly adrift,
as if I had somehow missed the path I should have taken and could never get back on it.
In hindsight, those moments are important parts of the tapestry of my career. Each thread
that felt out of place at the time now provides structure to the pattern of my life. They
helped me distinguish and define my calling. I learned, to quote Romans 8:28, that all
things do indeed “work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according
to his purpose.” My aim today is to encourage you to think
about your future life’s work without the anxiety—because when we ponder our calling
in life through the lens of the restored gospel, we don’t need to feel anxious. First, we need to explore what we mean by
a “calling in life” to see whether the idea fits within the framework of the restored
gospel. Actually, the idea of a professional calling is not ancient. It was brought into
focus by Martin Luther, who revolutionized how the world looked at work. Prior to Luther,
people viewed work as a necessary evil at best. The ancient Greeks considered work a
galling distraction from the more sublime pursuits of the mind—a view that allowed
them to justify slavery so that the elite class could focus on thinking great thoughts.
Some early Christian traditions believed that work kept men from the holier pursuit of contemplating
God’s greatness, and thus justified a monastic life devoid of labor, and sometimes even service. Luther, however, saw the fallacy in these
beliefs. His study of the Bible convinced him that work is how we participate in God’s
providence toward His children. Lee Hardy, a scholar of Luther’s teachings, noted,
“As we pray each morning for our daily bread, people are already busy at work in the bakeries.” Luther also taught how to find your calling.
It was pretty simple: your calling was to do whatever your station in life dictated.
If you grew up in a cobbler shop, your calling was to devote yourself to making shoes. And
doing so, you participated in the work of God by covering the feet of His children.
Luther believed that virtually any type of work could be a calling, so long as it rendered
service to mankind. John Calvin elaborated on Luther’s ideas
in a way that may make them seem a little more applicable to us today. For Calvin, it
wasn’t our position in the social structure that determined God’s calling for us. Rather,
he argued that God endows each of us with particular talents and gifts, and that it
is our calling to discover those gifts and to seek out ways to use them in the service
of our fellowmen. As he put it, “For as God bestows any ability or gift upon any of
us, he binds us to such as have need of us and as we are able to help.” So the very roots of the idea of a professional
calling are distinctly religious. Ironically, the world still embraces the notion of a professional
calling, but it has almost entirely abandoned the spiritual roots of the idea. As sociologist
Max Weber put it, “The idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the
ghost of dead religious beliefs.” Because society has drifted from the spiritual
moorings of calling, it has developed some odd and distorted doctrines about finding
your calling. In fact, I would like to refer to a few of these doctrines as heresies. That
may seem like a strong word, but I believe it’s fitting because if we were to embrace
these worldly doctrines, they would lead us far afield from how the Lord intends us to
view our life’s work. I submit to you that these heresies are the very things that cause
us so much anxiety when we are trying to decide what our calling in life is. So if we appeal
to the restored gospel to dispel these heresies, we can replace anxiety with faith and hope. The first heresy I’d like to discuss gets
right to the heart of our anxiety. It is: “You might have a calling if you are lucky,
or you might not.” To dispel this heresy, let’s look at a scripture I use as the theme
for many of my classes. You have heard it many times, but I’d like to point out something
that you may have missed. In D&C 58:27, the Lord asks His children to “be anxiously
engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass
much righteousness.” You might be tempted to think, “Well, that scripture refers to
church work. It’s not really relevant to my career.” Are you sure about that? Would
the Lord so pointedly command us to be anxiously engaged in good causes if he wanted us to spend a
huge portion of our waking hours—eight to five, for instance—simply punching a clock?
The Lord asks us to do “many things” in service to good causes. Why should our work
not be one of them? Now, here’s the part you may not have thought
about—I certainly hadn’t until a few years ago: After the Lord charges us to anxiously
pursue good causes, the next verse begins: “For the power is in them.” Think about
that. The Lord hasn’t just told you to pursue good causes, He has equipped you with power
to do so. You—you personally—are full of divine capacities to do good that you probably
don’t even fully appreciate. These verses testify that you are not part
of a lottery system for life callings. You have a calling in life: to pursue good causes.
And you have been given power to do just that. But knowing that you have power to do good
works is one thing; knowing specifically what you ought to do is quite another. How do you
find your particular calling? That’s the burning question for many of us. Some are lucky enough to know at an early
age what they are meant to do. Doctors, writers, and artists, for instance, often realize during
childhood that they have a gift and never have to agonize about what work they will
do. Most of us are not so fortunate, though. We are perplexed by a dizzying array of college
majors, service opportunities, and job choices—many of which seem interesting, but perhaps none
of them speak definitively to our souls. That was how I felt as an undergraduate at BYU.
At various times I seriously considered becoming an attorney, a businessman, a linguist, a
federal government official, and a seminary teacher—never a professor, by the way. I
liked all of those ideas but was overwhelmed by uneasiness every time I got close to committing
to one of them. The anxiety you might feel about choosing
a career brings up the second heresy that we can dispel through an appeal to gospel
truth. It is: “You have to find your one true calling in order to be fulfilled.” This heresy should remind you of your favorite
fairy tale in which the princess finds her “one true love.” Let’s consult the scriptures
again to see if they support the idea of a unique perfect fit. D&C 46 enumerates many spiritual gifts that
you might have been given—gifts of teaching, healing, or language. Some of these gifts
don’t seem particularly relevant to choosing a profession. But let’s see what else the
Lord tells us about spiritual gifts. Verses 11 and 12 read: For all have not every gift given unto them;
for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given
another, that all may be profited thereby. Note that there are many gifts, that they
are distributed differently among us, and that they are given so we can bless one another.
But the Lord does not say that He has listed every possible gift. In fact, Elder Bruce
R. McConkie said that “spiritual gifts are endless in number and infinite in variety.”
Could this endless and infinite list include spiritual gifts relevant to our professional
lives? We know that all things are spiritual to the Lord, so yes, of course our spiritual
gifts have everything to do with our professional callings. In fact, finding our calling in life involves
the same process as discovering our spiritual gifts. Elder Robert D. Hales has provided
some insight on this process: To find the gifts we have been given, we must
pray and fast. . . . I urge you each to discover your gifts and to seek after those that will
bring direction to your life’s work and that will further the work of heaven. As you consult your spiritual gifts, you may
find that you don’t feel an urgent pull to practice medicine or educate children,
for instance. Maybe instead you just like working with people. That is the most common
thing I hear from students who are perplexed about what type of work they should do. If
you think your spiritual gifts lie somewhere in that ambiguous area, I challenge you to
delve much deeper into what your specific gifts are. How do you like working with
people? Our strongest gifts tend to appear early in life, so it might help if you think
back on your childhood and about how and what you played. Were you the kid that always got
the neighborhood baseball game going? Maybe you have a spiritual gift for organizing others
into collective action. Were you a natural storyteller? Maybe you have a spiritual gift
for presenting ideas in a compelling and dramatic way. Were you the person who other kids always
sought out for sympathy and acceptance? Maybe you have a spiritual gift for listening and
discerning others’ emotions. Other types of gifts that you may notice in yourself include
the ability to praise others effectively, to identify and encourage others’ talents,
to organize information in a concise manner, and to see a problem from multiple angles. These sorts of gifts may not suggest a particular
career path to you, and that may seem like a disadvantage. I challenge you to try thinking
differently. The gifts I have just listed have market value. They are also highly portable.
You might express those gifts in many professions or organizations. Consequently, finding your
calling in life may not be a matter of finding the one right job. Instead, it may be that
your calling is to bring your unique spiritual gifts to whatever position the Lord blesses
you with. If you exercise faith in the Lord, follow
His spirit, and seek to amplify your gifts, you will be led gradually to a place where
you are well equipped to serve. I have seen it happen over and over. I have a colleague,
tremendously respected in his field, who became an auditor—not by long-term planning, but
by a series of minor circumstances that led him gradually and unintentionally to his profession.
He could never have predicted the fulfillment his career would give him. We usually can’t
predict exactly where our gifts will lead us. But in retrospect, we will see the hand
of the Lord leading us from door to door and opportunity to opportunity as we exercise
and hone our spiritual gifts. This principle is particularly important in
today’s economy. We faculty are keenly aware of how challenging it is for our students
to find jobs today. You cannot control the economy. As a result, there is a temptation
to feel like a victim or to give in to despair. When you are negatively affected by unstable
economic conditions, focus on your gifts, which are stable. You may have to take a
job that is below your level of qualification. If so, perform the work with drive, and use
your gifts to put your unique stamp on your contributions. Doing so will increase your
chances of finding better employment later. You may even suffer joblessness for a time.
Research shows that unemployment can have a devastating long-term impact on self-confidence,
on health, and on happiness. I submit that having a sense of calling is part of your
inoculation against the vicissitudes of the job market. Know yourself. Know what your
gifts are. And define yourself by your gifts—not by your lack of a job. Contrary to what the
world might tell you, you don’t have to have a job to express your calling in life.
If the world at present is not willing to pay you for what you can do, then donate your
spiritual gifts to worthy causes—perhaps through public service or volunteering—until
the value of those gifts becomes so evident that people want to pay you a fair wage for
them. Even in a booming economy, you may have to create your own opportunities to fulfill
your calling in life. Despite what most fairy tales imply, real-life princes and princesses
don’t just wait around for their dreams—or dream jobs—to come true. Speaking of dream jobs brings us to the third
heresy: “When you find your calling, work will be bliss.” This is a particularly pervasive
heresy today. The media implores you to build a career that is exciting and intensely fulfilling.
Now, I am certainly an advocate of enjoying your work! But it is a distortion of the idea
of calling to think that work should always be fun. As an example, let me share with you the story
of some people I have recently studied: zookeepers. I chose to study zookeepers because they are
passionate about the work they do, even though they make little money and have few opportunities
for career advancement. Learning about what “calling” means to zookeepers was eye-opening.
As you might expect, zookeepers find their work very meaningful. They care for their
animals as if they were their own children, and they feel great satisfaction when they
can enrich their animals’ lives and maintain their health. They believe deeply in conservation
and see themselves as educators of the public about species preservation. By and large,
they are almost outrageously satisfied with their work. But is every day fun for them? Hardly. When
zookeepers talked about their work as a calling, they spoke not just about satisfaction but
also about sacrifice—caring for sick animals in the middle of the night, doing unsavory
work, foregoing a comfortable living, and the list goes on. I learned something tremendously
important from my study of zookeepers. For them, the pain and burdens and sacrifice were
not threats to their sense of calling—they were part of it. The work was meaningful because
of the trials and burdens. That is an important lesson. We can’t expect deep meaningfulness
from our calling unless we are willing to assume its burdens as well. Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature
who studied and taught about hero myths, introduced the phrase “follow your bliss” back in
the 1970s. The idea was that heroes don’t chase money or prestige; they look into their
hearts to find their passion and then pursue it. Now you see the phrase “follow your
bliss” everywhere. Later, Campbell developed misgivings about how people were using the
phrase. It was reported that he quipped, “What I should have said was, ‘Follow your blisters.’”
Brothers and sisters, you may do the most important, exciting work in the world. Nonetheless,
some days will be mundane and no fun at all—kind of like the days I spend grading papers. You
will be called upon to sacrifice. Don’t expect deep meaning without paying the price
for it. A related heresy is: “Finding a calling
means that the world will take notice.” If you expect the world to loudly applaud
your calling in life, you may be disappointed. This point reminds me of one of the zookeepers
I interviewed. One day when he was busily caring for an animal, a nun came by with a
group of her students. Within earshot of the zookeeper she said, “See the kind of job
you get when you don’t finish your education!” Ironically, the zookeeper actually had a college
degree. I would like to tell you about my friend Barb,
who was a custodian at my previous university. She was a tiny dynamo of a woman probably
in her early 50s. Every afternoon she came into my office, a smiling flurry of activity,
to take out my trash. She often asked if there was some special task she might do to make
my office cleaner. I rarely took her up on her offer, but I came to realize that it really
made her happy when I did. One day I asked her, “Barb, how do you feel about your job?”
She beamed. “I love it,” she said. “I’m so happy to be a part of this school and just
really like making it a better place. Plus,” she added proudly, “I’m really good at
it.” And she was! Barb did make the university a better place. It occurred to me that when
I saw her enthusiasm, it made me want to be a better professor. I wish I had told her
that, but I don’t recall ever doing so. I challenge you to look for examples of nobility
among those who do the so-called menial tasks all around you. You will find many inspiring
examples of people who use their spiritual gifts to serve in quiet but remarkable ways.
We do great violence to the souls of those who offer their callings in less-glamorous
ways when we consider them invisible or treat them as minor cast members in the great drama
of our professional lives. The Savior saw nobility in “the least of these.” And getting
to know the Barbs in your life will inspire you to be your best in whatever you are called
to do. If you find your calling leads you to work
that is less than glamorous, take heed to what John Calvin said: “No task will be
so sordid and base . . . that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s
sight.” The Book of Mormon also promotes an egalitarian spirit about work. Among the Nephites,
priests probably held more status than anyone but the king. And yet, Alma 1:26 tells us
that even priests were to labor for their own support, with the priest “not esteeming
himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, . . . and thus
they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.” It
is a heresy that work is meaningful only when it gives us status and esteem. When we work
to impress or outshine others, we violate the Lord’s vision of work. Now, I’d like to speak to you about the
last and most insidious heresy about work. It’s insidious because it’s almost true.
The heresy is: “Meaningfulness in life is to be found at work.” This idea has become
a foundational doctrine of the world. Many people identify themselves primarily by their
professions. Once again, I emphasize that I am in favor of working passionately. However,
there is a danger that meaningful work might distract us from the weightier matters of
eternal life. As one wise person noted, in the eternal scheme of things, our jobs will
someday seem to us like playthings. Work is simply one stage upon which we can act out
our service to God and our fellowmen. The fifth heresy is almost true because our
worthwhile work can indeed give us a sense of meaning. But the idea that meaning comes
primarily from our work entirely misses the point, because it focuses on the self. Imagine,
if you would, a great artist who creates stunning and inspiring masterpieces but then hoards
them in her attic, where only she can enjoy them. Certainly she may take pleasure in her
creations, but it is through enriching others that the artist makes her contribution to
the world. As the fifth heresy suggests, we can indeed find personal meaning in our work,
but the real point is that the Lord expects us to render meaningful service through work.
True meaning, as always, comes from service. Allow me to share a simple experience from
my mission. As I was nearing my release date, I anticipated a sense of loss when I could
no longer give all my time to serving God. At a zone conference, my mission president
opened the floor for Q&A on any topic. I raised my hand and asked, “After our missions are
over and we are no longer full-time servants of God, how can we keep a sense of purpose?”
Before the mission president could answer, his wife leapt to her feet and, literally
elbowing him aside, said, “I’ll take this one.” I will never forget her response. As near
as I can recall, she said, “When I do the laundry, I am building the kingdom of God.
When I scrub the floors, I am serving the Lord. When I tidy the clutter, I’m an instrument
in His hands. I do a lot of mundane jobs, but if my eye is single to God and I’m trying
to serve my family, then I feel as much purpose in my work as a missionary can.” Those words
remind me of what King Benjamin said about laboring in the fields to support himself—a
decidedly unkingly occupation. He said, “I do not desire to boast, for I have only been
in the service of God.” So perhaps the state of our hearts is as important
as the tasks we do in determining whether our work is truly—and eternally—meaningful.
D&C 117 reinforces this idea. In this section, the Lord extends a professional calling to
Oliver Granger. He is called to Zion, where “he shall be made a merchant unto my name
. . . for the benefit of my people.” What’s striking is that two verses later, the Lord
promises to “overthrow the moneychangers in mine own due time.” So what is the difference
between a merchant unto the Lord’s name and a moneychanger whom the Lord will expel?
The work they do must look very similar. But in the case of Oliver Granger, he was called
to do his work in the service of God and man, not in the service of himself, and certainly not
in the service of his own bank account. We need to be very cautious about our motives
for the work we do. It’s tempting to say, “I serve my family when I’m at home, I
serve God when I’m at church, and I serve my career when I’m at work.” This approach
moves us perilously close to becoming moneychangers. We must see our work as but another extension
of the Lord’s commandment to serve His children and “bring to pass much righteousness.” How does this measure up to the world’s
teaching that you have to take care of number one, climb the corporate ladder, get ahead?
One of the great gospel ironies is that when we lose ourselves, we find ourselves. Work
is much the same. I testify that when you focus your work first and foremost on blessing
others, you will become extraordinary at what you do and will find fulfillment and success
much more reliably than if you spend your time at work trying to get ahead or get rich.
My brothers and sisters, work to serve! Remember the words that greet you at the gateway of
the university: “Enter to learn; go forth to serve.” In closing, I testify that our Heavenly Father
is intimately involved in the doors that open for us and in the circumstances that lead
us to the places we should be—the places where we are equipped, with power, to serve.
Have faith that your unseen Navigator will lead you gradually to your life’s calling. I also testify that, as with all important
questions, when it comes to asking what our calling in life is, Jesus Christ is in the
answer. The grace of Christ, that same power that helps us do things we otherwise couldn’t,
is what will guide us to our callings and enable us to excel in them. You can call upon
the grace of Christ to help you with your professional calling. In fact, He pleads with
us to do so. In Alma, He invites us to pray over our flocks. Even if we are not shepherds
by trade, we all tend professional flocks, and He is mindful of them. Knowing that helps
us expel anxiety. Lastly, may I conclude with a personal word
to you students here at BYU. We, the faculty, love you. You are our flocks. You are our
calling in life. And the finest expression of our labors will be the good that you do
in the world with the things you learned at BYU. My dear brothers and sisters, follow
your bliss, follow your blisters, and go forth to serve. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

2 comments on “What Is Your Calling in Life? | Jeffery A. Thompson

  1. We can pray that the Lord will consecrate our daily, mundane performances unto Him and do everything we do FOR him. When we work for God we will not require any of the praise of men.

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