Here’s an essay by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg with input from Laura Packer. This essay also speaks to Caryn and Laura’s approach to Your Right Livelihood: A Training to Do the Work, Art and Service You Love, which is a new certification with the TLA Network. Learn more here, and feel free to each out to Caryn and Laura (via Caryn at CarynMirriamGoldberg@gmail.com) to set up a free 15-minute discovery call about the training and your dreams and goals).
We all have our callings: the work we’re alive to do, yet for most of us, the path is not just a wavy line to follow but a tangle that runs through mosquito-filled forests, swampy grasslands, and even along the sea bottom at times before being tossing us back onto the shore.
By conversing with our callings, we can drop a kind of anchor, connecting us to the main story we’re meant to live, and from that story finding our own Right Livelihood. Traditionally Right Livelihood, part of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, means work that does no harm, but a more contemporary definition is the work that follows our callings, helps us grow, and serves the world in some way, however small.
Growing up as a mediocre student and expert daydreamer in New Jersey, I had no idea that my love of art and music, then writing, would lead me toward calling myself a Transformative Language Artist, a person who uses writing, storytelling, and performance for personal and community transformation. As a teenage poet, when my dad told me I had two choices for a career – advertising or journalism – I followed the conventional wisdom of the day: I chose journalism. It didn’t stick, but it got me to the Midwest where my passion for the stories I was covering led me to grassroots organizing until I returned to school for graduate work in poetry. Paying my bills by gigging as a teaching assistant, I happened upon a twin calling: teaching.
I now make my living in a kaleidoscope of ways: leading writing workshops for people with serious illness, collaborating with a singer on a poetry music performance about courage, teaching classes on poetry to change our lives, coaching people on writing and right livelihood. While what I do isn’t something I can explain in one word — and it does entail a lot of travel, video-conferencing, and mostly listening carefully to what people are saying and writing – I continually find meaning, connection, and joy on the wild road trip of living my calling.
In putting together the Right Livelihood Professional Training (https://www.tlanetwork.org/Right-Livelihood-Training) with storyteller Laura Packer, based on what we wish we knew when we started out as working artists, Laura and I have discovered some uncommon steps most of us take in just starting out, making a mid-career shift, or launching a third act after retirement:
- Converse with Your Calling: Callings, according to writer Gregg Levoy, aren’t so much lightning bolts as they are continual conversations, sometimes with a voice whispering in code and sometimes with a loud booming billboard. You can catch more of what’s coming your way by keeping a callings journal: write for 10-15 minutes on a regular basis with what work calls to you, how you might do it, how others seem to do it, what would be required for you to launch yourself, and whatever else comes to you as questions or answers. You can even write a dialogue between yourself and your calling, imagining meeting your calling for coffee at a local cafe.
- Look for Signs and Wonders: Finding ways to cover your bills while doing the work of your heart is sometimes akin to looking for water in a big field with only a dowsing stick. It can take a lot of meandering, but along the way, you can be on the watch for signs and wonders: hints that this new direction is the right one for you. When I was developing the emerging field of Transformative Language Arts (TLA) (http://tlanetwork.org), just when I began to doubt myself about whether any of this made sense, someone would email or call to say how TLA named exactly what what they were doing for years. Listen to what little hints you find: snippets of conversation you might overhear, repeated lessons the universe keeps giving you, or something you keep dreaming about each night. It can be helpful to write down their signs and wonders in your callings journal because the more attention you pay to them, the more they show up.
- Practice, Practice, Practice: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” goes the old joke. “Practice, practice, practice,” is the answer, and the same is true for changing your job, either from the inside out or by shifting to new work. You can practice by learning all you can about what the new work may entail. For example, if you plan to launch a small consulting business, shadow someone else who does similar work, then practice by offering free sessions to people in exchange for their honest feedback on how to improve. Even when you’re doing your beloved work in the right balance for your life – whether as a paid job, volunteer work, or art – you’re always learning from the work itself how to do it better.
- Surround Yourself With Support: Laura and I know first-hand how essential it is to have a strong support system as you transition toward your dream work. Laura, who also does storytelling coaching, has a fellow coach she checks in with regularly, and I talk with several friends regularly who are crafting livelihoods from arts or activism. It can be invaluable to meet up with a group of people doing parallel work. If you’re developing writing workshops for your community, get together a group of people who offer art, music, and other kinds of workshops to share strategies and support.
- Leap When the Time is Right: “Timing is everything” goes the old adage. For most of us, leaping from a less-than-fulfilling day job without tried-and-true plans, connections, and experience doing the work we love may be far more exciting, exhausting, and fearful than you anticipated, not to mention less successful. Take your time to transition into your work. Study the field and learn the ins and outs from others doing this kind of work, develop a strong business and marketing plan, and surround yourself with people and resources that support your new work. Also, consider taking baby steps into the new work. Laura points out that moonlighting and volunteering are noble ways to test the waters and get some experience under your belt. Many people find themselves gradually transitioning, then taking a timely leap, often surprising themselves in the process. Of course, there are also times the universe forces us to jump when a job or contract ends, and at such moments, we have a little extra push when it comes to taking such a leap.
- Take Care of Yourself: Even once you’ve leapt (or are in mid-leap), it’s a good idea to keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re going in the right direction. Remember to take time off for your well-being, hanging out with friends or family, and making time for hobbies and other passions. Do whatever is self-care for you, from taking ten deep breaths in the morning before you start answering emails to showing up at a restorative yoga class regularly to slipping out of a stuck moment to see a movie or take a walk instead. Taking good care of yourself is essential to cultivating the perspective you’ll need for living your calling and doing the work you love, and it will inevitably make that adventure all-the-more sustainable.