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She was president of one of the country's top publicity agencies, with a Who's Who in Entertainment client list that included Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis, and Janet Jackson. The bestselling author of The Personal Touch, she was a popular speaker for Fortune 500 companies and academia alike. Yet Terrie Williams felt more stressed out than successful, frantic instead of fulfilled. She felt there had to be something more than rushing to meet constant deadlines and to be in endless places, and she found it somewhere ...
She was president of one of the country's top publicity agencies, with a Who's Who in Entertainment client list that included Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis, and Janet Jackson. The bestselling author of The Personal Touch, she was a popular speaker for Fortune 500 companies and academia alike. Yet Terrie Williams felt more stressed out than successful, frantic instead of fulfilled. She felt there had to be something more than rushing to meet constant deadlines and to be in endless places, and she found it somewhere she never expected...
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one ... the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, from Man and Superman
As a child, I once listened to a minister tell a story about how he had been called by God to preach. He cried as he told us about being healed of his addictions and "carnal" living and compelled to worship God and serve the community. Wow, I thought, to be handpicked by God to do something special must be awesome.
Sitting on that cold, hard pew, I wondered, Did God only call preachers? Did He ever call regular folks like me? I wanted God to handpick me for something important, too. I wanted to feel special.
In the past we used to believe that "callings" were reserved for our religious leaders. A calling was generally understood as a commandment from God to do divine work, whether as a missionary, evangelist, or church head. The mystery of the calling made these powerful people seem larger than life, and they enjoyed respect and obedience from their followers.
Regular folks supposedly didn't get callings. They may have been faithful laborers in their churches and communities; they may have loved their jobs; they may have had hobbies that gave them intense pleasure. But these activities were seldom given the same respect and divine association as a calling.
Baby boomers changed all that. They introduced a new idea into our work ethic: All people, not just religious figures, are "called" to do something special. In true democratic fashion, we began to believe that everyone had a calling, not just a select few. This idea is both empowering and revolutionary. It's empowering because answering a calling brings meaning and satisfaction to our lives. And it's revolutionary because if we achieve a critical mass of folks committed to living their calling, society will change for the better.
What is calling? A calling is not just a job, although if you're lucky, it's what you do from nine to five. A calling is not just a career; it goes way beyond that. Calling is that seed of something big within that just won't let you be. It just grows and grows, seeking the sun of your right place in the world.
My definition is simple: Calling is your divine assignment. Our jobs may wear us out, but calling feeds the spirit. Our jobs pay the bills, but following a calling is the key to the treasure chest. Your calling is that thing you've spent your entire life loving and trying to do to the best of your ability. Each one of us has a calling, and I believe it comes from God. When you're living your calling, you are happiest and most fulfilled. Calling gives our lives meaning.
I don't have a scientific survey to back me, but my instincts tell me that most of us have not tapped into this powerful aspect of life. Why? Because calling is a mystery. Discovering our calling is not as simple as looking in the want ads for a job. If only it was! Mysteries take a bit more time and willingness to investigate, but if we keep our minds and hearts open, calling will slowly and beautifully reveal itself, unfolding like the petals of a flower over a lifetime.
To discover calling, we must search our souls, not once, not twice, but daily. It's a sweet obsession, this pursuit of calling. We must go within and listen to the Still Small Voice, even when the loud noises of daily survival threaten to distract us and throw us off course. We may not think we can afford the luxury of meditating on calling when the roof is leaking, the kid's got the flu, and back-to-back meetings have been scheduled for the rest of the day. Not only can we afford it, but we owe it to ourselves to explore our life's calling. Somehow, some way, we must find the time and the energy.
Of all the living virtues that challenge me every single day, calling is the one that, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, is finally (thank God!) falling into place. I hesitate to write these words because I don't want to give the impression that it's been an easy journey. It hasn't. Today I'm finally clear that my calling is to help others reach their true potential, but that knowledge did not come to me fully birthed. For so many years I wrestled with indecision, self-doubt, and clouded vision. All too often depression prevented me from seeing opportunities that were inviting me closer and closer to my calling. Countless times I've taken one step forward only to fall two, three, and four steps back.
As I search my memories, I realize that there was seldom a time when my calling was not beckoning me. Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, I absorbed the lessons of giving that my parents provided just in living their daily lives. We were your typical working-class family. My dad was a truck driver whose route ran throughout upper New York State. My mom devoted much of her time to school and community activities.
Both my parents love to help people. That's when they're happiest. My dad would come home tired on the weekends, but still find time to spend with us and a foster kid we had taken in on weekends. Their earliest lessons in helping others planted a seed deep within me. Only time would reveal just what kind of special blossoming would occur. My parents taught me that life's not centered on me alone. Doing service work was an important part of my week, whether I tutored kids after school, participated in charity fund-raising events, or helped out at church. It mattered that I gave back. They believed that if you want to have a fulfilling life, you can't just sit on the sidelines. You've got to get involved.
It seemed only natural that when I got to college I'd major in ways to help people. I got my undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from Brandeis University and a master's of science degree in social work from Columbia University. Fresh out of graduate school, I got a job at New York Hospital working with terminally ill, "at risk," and physically challenged patients. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but figured this would be the best way for me to help.
I should have been in heaven. Here I was, actually working in my chosen field. How many people get to do that? But during the two years I was there, it became glaringly, painfully obvious that I'd made a big mistake. Instead of healing others, I was killing my own spirit. I couldn't separate myself emotionally from the pain and suffering of my patients. I took the job way too personally. Soon after accepting the job I began to realize that my work didn't make a difference. I was disturbed. I had spent so many years preparing for this, only to find that I wasn't effective.
There were so many things about the job and the hospital setting that bothered me. I'm a free spirit and very independent, but the job forced me into a relentless nine-to-five rut. I'm a creative thinker and a problem solver, and you just can't put those things on a schedule. Some of my best thinking is done late at night when I'm alone. All these compromises were actually molding me into a person I didn't want to be.
Today I know that I'm an entrepreneur at heart, but back then that knowledge hadn't blossomed within me yet. All I knew was that I was frustrated. I had creative ideas, but there was no place to plant them so they could take root and grow. Heaven forbid I make a suggestion or stand toe to toe with my supervisor. It's hard to buck bureaucratic regulations designed to break spirits, subdue creativity, and maintain control over the activities of employees.
To make matters even worse, I was barely making enough money to meet my basic needs.
I wanted the job to live up to all my fantasies, but talk about a square peg in a round hole! I just didn't fit in, and I was miserable. I had to admit to myself that I'd made a mistake about my choice of profession, and this depressed and confused me. Hadn't I studied the right courses in college? It never occurred to me to major in business or communications. Those weren't "helping" majors (or so I thought). Yet with my "correct" degrees and "ideal" hospital gig, I wasn't effectively helping anyone.
This was too deep. How many of us have misread the clues to our passions and interests? People who seek justice become lawyers, but can't find the justice in their profession. True healers leave medicine when after years of study they realize that treating the whole person does not mesh with the corporation's bottom line. I'm not knocking these professions; they weren't right for me. And as I travel and speak to more and more folks around the country, I realize that many people are making the same mistake I made - doing work that doesn't make them happy.
Have you ever worked a job that was so unbearable that just getting up in the morning was a chore? Every morning I'd wake up with the covers over my head. The alarm would ring, and I'd hit the snooze button five or six times before dragging myself out of the bed.
When you're not loving your work, your soul suffers a slow, lingering death. Sabrina, a young, professional woman, once worked in a situation she hated so much that it caused her almost a physical sense of pain. Her new boyfriend (now husband) Jerry says that on Fridays she would come home like a "comatose person," suffering from post-traumatic work syndrome. On Saturdays he'd watch her detox and relax from the week, but on Sundays at 11:00 P.M. she would shut down again, steeling herself to go back to work on Monday morning.
I remember feeling the same way. All those years I'd spent in school and in internships and what did I have to show for it? A job that drained me and made me feel stuck, which made me feel guilty on top of all my other depressing feelings. How could I hate working at a hospital? People were sick, and they needed help. My guilt was overwhelming. What I didn't understand is that although I'd realized a part of my calling, I hadn't yet seen the bigger picture. I wanted to serve, but I'd have to discover better uses for my time and creative energies. Sure, the hospital seemed like an ideal place to serve others, but I wasn't happy. Didn't I deserve to be happy? I asked myself constantly. Did I have to suffer to truly be of service?
I didn't have the answers to these questions, but at least I had begun to ask, and that was the beginning of change. The first glimmer of light was a little miracle that occurred during the end of my tenure at the hospital. The buzz going around the nurses' station was that the great jazz legend Miles Davis was a patient on another floor. I had heard that Miles wasn't very friendly, but he was such a genius that I decided to take a chance and introduce myself.
Nervous as hell, I walked into his room and said, "Hi, my name is Terrie." He answered, "Hey, how're you doin'?" in that famous, raspy voice of his, and our long-term friendship was born. I'd always had friends in the arts-they may not have been famous, but they were cool, creative, high-energy people. So to me, Miles was surprisingly "normal." Meeting Miles was like meeting an old friend, and I was delighted to find that, in his own way, he felt the same way about me.
During his stay, I'd often visit him on my breaks. One time I came in just to shoot the breeze, but something about my demeanor or aura must have disturbed him because he took one look at me and told me to sit down. He stared at me for some long moments.
"What's the matter?" I finally asked.
"Be quiet," he said. He was thinking something through, so I held my tongue. Eventually he spoke. "We've talked music and life, so I know you good enough. But what I can't figure out is why you're wasting your time here." He opened his hands. It was a small gesture, but I knew he held the entire hospital in those beautiful ebony hands. "What the hell you working here for?"
I was taken aback and a little offended. "I'm trying to help people work through their problems."
He just stared at me. When Miles stared at you, it was like having a laser beam rip right through you. A very uncomfortable feeling.
"Cut the bullshit, Terrie. You're being wasted here. What is it that you really want to do?"
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Miles had left me speechless. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but it sure as hell wasn't what I was doing.
He broke the silence. "I need somebody to take care of the media and things, you know? Think about it." Then he closed his eyes and softly tapped his fingers to a tune only he could hear.
I walked out of his room stunned, but strangely energized. Miles's words had shocked me out of my lethargy. What did I want to do? For the first time in a long time I actually felt a smile creep across my face. I wasn't out of the woods yet, but I had a question that I could work with: What do I want to do with my life?
Allowing myself to even ask the question helped me to consciously admit that I was not in my right place and that I needed to make some changes.
It's not an overstatement to say that Miles changed my life, and although I wouldn't take him up on his offer until a couple of years later, our discussion focused my thoughts in a different direction.
I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to make my mark on the world like Miles had. I thought I'd found my thing at the hospital, but now that I discovered what a bad fit the job was I had to start over again at square one.
Sometime after that fateful conversation with Miles, I was reading the New York Amsterdam News, one of the country's most important Black newspapers. I happened to notice a small article about a public relations course being given at the YWCA on Lexington Avenue in New York City. If it hadn't been for my conversation with Miles, I might not have paid any attention to the article. I didn't know anyone in public relations; I'd never really heard about it. But I figured, why not give the course a try? What I didn't know was that the course would be yet one more step toward living my calling.
I can't say that the course was exciting, but it did whet my appetite. There was something about this PR thing that was interesting. I enrolled in another course and met many new and interesting people. I liked the concept of creatively packaging an idea to raise public awareness and influence lots of people. Early on I could see the potential for making myself useful. In fact, I began to apply what I was learning to help promote my artist friends. I'd create flyers, write press releases, organize events, develop mailing lists, and stuff envelopes. It was PR 101, and I was learning.
Excerpted from A Plentiful Harvest by Terrie Williams Copyright © 2003 by Terrie Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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