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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Figuring Out Your True Calling Isn't Easy—But Here's Why It's Worth It

You might know Carrie Brownstein best from Portlandia. As an actor, writer, and director of the innovative show, Brownstein has inarguably made a name for herself in the world of comedy.

But long before she conceived of the innovative series with Fred Armisen, Brownstein was—and is—first and foremost, a musician. A rock ’n’ roll guitarist, she’s one of the original members of Sleater-Kinney, an American band that formed over 20 years ago.

In spite of her many hats, it seems to me after reading Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, the talented Brownstein has one true calling, and that is her work as a musician.

To read Brownstein talk about the impact of the band in her life and the music they created (“what I wanted was to create music,” “I wanted the guitar to be an appendage—an extension even—of a body that was made powerful by my yielding of it,” “who was I without this band?”) is to understand what it means to find your calling.

Brownstein’s calling, it's clear from her own admission, as well as the trajectory of her musical career, is performing, playing music. Your calling is your passion; it’s what drives you, and in some cases, like Brownstein’s, what defines you. It’s what you’re meant to do in life—what you want to be when you “grow up.”

But as such, it doesn’t necessarily present itself easily. It’s not as though you sit down, close your eyes, and sit in silence meditating while you wait for your calling to come out and introduce itself. Nope, finding it requires dedication, attention, and grit. It’s no wonder that not everyone can pinpoint it, let alone celebrate it.

In an interesting New York Times piece from a couple of years ago, titled “Do You Know Your Calling?” Yael Averbuch (whose true calling is teaching soccer) writes, “A calling doesn’t mean it comes easy and doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying to go down that path. A calling resides in the things we are drawn to do for some reason outside logic and understanding. It is the processes about which we are passionate that come naturally to us. It is through our calling that we can make the most positive impact on the world around us.”

For Brownstein, whose band started out making $350 a show—at most—being a musician wasn’t about glamour and money.

In fact, she recalls that during the early years of touring, “I came to the realization that we were just as much movers as we were musicians,” referencing the lugging of equipment, the constant setup and break down of sets, from city to city. “There is very little about being a working musician that is glamorous, which is why I have never understood people who get onstage and hardly even try.” Of course, things got better for Sleater-Kinney as their fan base grew and their popularity increased (though they are still far more critically than commercially acclaimed).

Exploring other opportunities before she was able to play music full-time, Brownstein worked as a telemarketer, where she says she gave herself daily paper cuts to serve as “reminders, witchy whispers” to let herself not forget that it was temporary. Just a job. If you’re frustrated with your daily grind, all is not lost, especially if you recognize your current role as temporary, your professional position mutable. Avoid letting fear and worry strong arm you. Remember that determining and then acting out what you’re destined to do typically isn’t something that happens overnight.

Unlike Averbuch, who admits that she’s lucky to have intuitively known at the age of nine years old that soccer (playing it, sharing her understanding of it with others) was what she was meant to do, you’re not a lost cause if the whole idea causes you more confusion than clarity. In fact, Averbuch is understanding of those who don’t share her learning experience, noting that “Some of my friends are discovering theirs at 27.”

I’m certain that some of my friends are still figuring it out, too—and they’re older than 27. It may take you years yet to discover what your calling is. You might need to work in a variety of industries before it dawns on you. In the meantime, listen to some TED talks, explore ideas you’re interested in, and talk to people about their careers. And in that process, you might learn you need to finally make that gigantic, scary career jump, or go back to school, or speak with a career coach to get a sense of clarity.

But one thing seems certain: If you don’t try to discover your calling and respond to it in a way that makes sense in your life (or, I’d argue, even in a way that doesn’t), you could end up perpetually bored and full of regrets. And where’s the joy in that?

Photo of woman deep in thought courtesy of Shutterstock.