Whistle While You Work: Heeding Your Life's Callingby Richard J. Leider, David Shapiro
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Everyone wants to live a life that enables them to make the most of their unique gifts, interests, and passions-to find their true calling, the work they were born to do. Whistle While You Work is a liberating guide that uses powerful stories and exercises to help readers find truly satisfying, fulfilling work consistent with their deepest values.
The authors combine a thoughtful and practical discussion about calling with examples showing how to apply these ideas to one's life. They mix in dozens of inspiring stories featuring individuals who have found, or are in the process of finding, their calling with straightforward advice and suggestions on how to discover one's calling. Most importantly, they provide readers with a solid path for embracing calling, a subject usually addressed abstractly in a useful, fun, and systematic way.
Through a unique Calling Card exercise that features a guided exploration of 52 "natural preferences" -- such as Advancing Ideas, Doing the Numbers, Building Relationships, Performing Events -- the book gives readers a new way to detect and reflect on the core of their life's work. By using this and other tools in the book, readers develop their own answers to three critical questions:
What gift do I naturally give to others?
What gift do I most enjoy giving to others?
What gift have I most often given to others?
In answering those questions, they will reveal to themselves their calling-and ultimately move toward new realms of success and fulfillment.
Whistle While You Work is an inspiring, effective, and entertaining approach to discovering one's calling. It will equip all of us with the mind-set, stories, coaching, and, perhaps most importantly, the hope we need to find our way ahead-and see a clear picture of what our right work is and what to do with our limited time here on Earth.
Read an Excerpt
what do I want to be
when I grow up?
Everything Happens for a Reason
I'm already late for my plane. The alarm in my hotel room didn't go offor maybe I slept right through it. I'm stressing hard; if I miss this flight, I'll be two hours late for my meeting, not to mention deeply embarrassed in front of my clients when I finally do show my face.
Traffic is awful. My taxi driver coughs and shifts in his seat as he faces the long line of cars ahead of him. I see his reflection in the rear-view mirror. He looks like he's straight from Central Casting's cab driver department: the big, red, Karl Malden nose, the watery bloodshot eyes, the few greasy strands of hair sticking out from under the flattened wool cap.
"What time's your flight?" he asks, glancing up at the mirror to meet my gaze.
I tell himthe hopeful, pleading tone of my voice all too apparent.
The driver shakes his head. "You ain't gonna make it. Sorry. This traffic's outta control."
I sigh involuntarily and mumble something about the meeting I'm going to miss.
My driver waxes philosophical "Everything happens for a reason," he says. "You wanna know why I'm a cab driver?"
Why not? I've got time to kill now.
"Because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor."
This I've gotta hear.
"Yeah," continues the driver. "You ever hear of the Sullivan Act?" He doesn't wait for me to answer. "Four brothersall Navygot killed in the bombing. So Congress passes a law that if you have a brother on active duty, you can't be drafted. Okay My brother, who's a cop, is in Vietnam. And back in 1969, I'm just outta high school, and because I always do everything he does, I'm gonna enlist and go over there, too. I write him a letter telling him my plans and he writes back saying don't do it, this place is a mess, so I stay home, get into some trouble with the law and disqualify myself from following my brother's footsteps onto the police force. 'Course I wouldn't have that option if it wasn't for the Sullivan ActI'd a been drafted. My number's already called. So you see, if it wasn't for Pearl Harbor, I'd be a cop today. Instead, here I am.f
Sounds like he was fated to drive a cab.
"It's a good thing, too," says the driver, smiling wryly. "If I were a cop, I'd be dead. I got the kind of personality, you put me on the street with a gun, I'm not so sure things would work out, know what I mean? So, you see? Everything happens for a reason. If it wasn't for Pearl Harbor, I wouldn't be driving this cab. And if weren't for missing your wake-up call, you wouldn't have met the best taxi driver in town."
Think about your own life and the complex turn of events that led you to where you are today. Perhaps you can't trace the origins of your current career all the way back to the Second World War, but you probably recognize that a few key events played a major role in determining who and what you are today. The question to ask is "How involved was I in the course of those events?" Did you make choices that reflected what you really care about or were you pretty much borne along by forces outside your control? Are you, in other words, being what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Whistle While You Work
The Disney classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, features the unforgettable song, "Whistle While You Work." The tune, sung by Snow White and the forest animals who come to her aid, captures the feeling of work done with a sense of joy, commitment, and focus. As Snow White works and whistles, we are reminded that, ultimately, the way we work is an expression of who we really are. And we share in Snow White's feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction as she busily completes her many tasks.
In doing so, we are naturally led to wonder about our own jobs. Like Snow White, many of us have too much to do. And like her, we are bothered by many troubles. How many of us, though, are able to put on a grin and start right in? How many of us find ourselves really able to whistle while we work?
Of course, Snow White's whistle is only half the story. Behind the scenes, the movie offers an even clearer model for joyful, committed work: the model of Walt Disney himself. Through his movies, his artwork, and his vision for the fantasy kingdom, Disneyland, Walt Disney created a legacy that any of us could hope to aspire to. An incredibly gifted animator, director, and businessperson, he was also incredibly passionate about his work; his values for high-quality family entertainment came shining through in all he did. Who can doubt that Walt Disney, as he created the many characters and stories that are now so deeply a part of our culture, whistled while he worked?
Naturally, we can't all be Walt Disney. Most of us, in fact, probably have jobs more like Snow White's friendly dwarfs. But this doesn't mean we can't bring to them the powerful sense of calling that Walt Disney did. And it certainly doesn't mean that we can't find a way to whistle while we work.
This feeling of doing what we were meant to doof performing the work that we were born foris something every one of us craves. We have a deep hunger to feel useful and to know that our natural abilities are being employed to their fullest potential. The desire is especially powerful because we've all had a taste of it; we've all had the experience of being deeply connected to what we're doingthat sense of timelessness and flow that fills us when we're doing exactly what we were meant to do.
When we were kids, we imagined work would be like this when we grew up. When parents and teachers asked us what we wanted to be, we usually had a ready answer "An astronaut. A fire fighter. An explorer." We envisioned a life of excitement and challenge on the joba life in which we'd employ our best-loved talents on projects we were passionate about.
For many of us, though, it hasn't exactly worked out that way. We find ourselves in working situations that are far from what we envisioned as children. Our jobs are just jobs. They pay the bills, but they don't provide us with the joy that, in the end, is what really matters. We've lost the whistle in our work. Even worse, we've forgotten what we wanted to be when we grew up.
So maybe it's time to ask ourselves again:
What do I want to be when I grow up?
Maybe it's time to take a lesson from a group of sixth-graders Dave worked with in a Seattle middle school. They all had very strong feelings about what the future ought to hold for themand even stronger feelings about what it ought not. Each of them had already answered the question that we're still asking:
What do I want to be when I grow up?
Dave tells a story that made this abundantly clear to him, in a way that helped him realize what his own answer finally was.
David A. Shapiro
We're playing a game called "Hand Dealt," which explores the question, "Is life fair?" by providing each player with a predetermined "life." Students are each dealt three cards; one card determines a fictional relationship they are in, one establishes a fictional job or jobs; the third tells them where they live. There is a wide range of relationships, occupations, and accommodations, from the quite affluent to the extremely poor. Thus, one player may end up having been dealt a "life" of two parents, one of whom is a chemical engineer making $80,000 a year, the other of whom is a banker earning $125,000 annually, two kids, living in a four-bedroom house, while another player is dealt a "life" of an unemployed single parent of 4 children living in a one-bedroom apartment. Not surprisingly, the kids who get the "good" lives tend to respond to the question of life's fairness in the affirmative while those who are dealt less desirable lives usually respond that life is horribly unjust. This gives us the opportunity to wonder aloud about the relationship between monetary success and happiness, and ultimately, about just what it means for life to be fair or unfair.
But that's not all. It also gives us a chance to explore what it feels like to be dealt a life we didn't choose. And this, more than anything else, is what energizes our discussion. The kids are adamant about the injustice of having to live with choices they didn't make.
"I wouldn't mind being a janitor," says a boy I'll call Carlos, whose bleached-blond surfer look belies an unusual level of thoughtfulness for an 11 year-old, "if being a janitor is what I wanted to be. But since it isn't my choice, I don't think it's fair."
But the cards were passed out fairly, weren't they? Didn't everyone have an equal opportunity to be whatever they ended up being?
"That's not the point," says Miranda, a rather small girl with a rather large personality. "What makes it fair or not is that it's your own life and that nobody's forced you into it."
"Yeah. Some people are actually happy being, I dunno, schoolteachers. But that for me would be like worse than prison." This comment from Will, one of the class's several class clowns, elicits a humorous grimace from his teacher and chuckles from his classmates.
"Could you imagine coming to school for the rest of your life?" shouts curly-haired Maya with a theatrical shiver. "What a disaster!"
Amidst the general assent of her fellow students, I wonder out loud what kinds of things these 11- and 12-year-olds could imagine doing for the rest of their lives. I'm taken aback at the assurance with which they respond.
"When I grow up, I'm going to be a movie director," says Erin, a seemingly shy girl who spends much of her time drawing. "I'm going to start by doing commercials and then videos and then feature films."
Ryan, who collared me the moment I entered the classroom to show me his daily journal, in which he is recording tidbits for the autobiography he is working on, pipes up that he's going to be a writer. "Maybe I can write your movie scripts," he says to Erin.
Other students have similarly well-formed notions of what they love doing. I'm enjoying immensely talking to them about what they plan to do, how they plan to do it, and the philosophical implications of their choicesand their freedom to make those choices. I'm wondering how they manage to have such optimism and clarity about their lives at this young age. I'm wondering howat this agethey seem to know themselves so well. When did they have the discovery that so often eludes adults: the discovery of what they want to be when they grow up?
And suddenly, I come to understand that I am having that same discovery myself. As I stand in a classroom, doing philosophy with children, I realize that finally, after years of searching, I am at last doing what I most love to be doing. All the other jobs I've ever hadfrom busboy to videodisc designer to corporate training consultanthave been merely steps upon the way to where I am now. I feel completely connected to the process of inquiry we're conducting; I'm immersed in the subject matter and delighted by my young colleagues and their inquiring minds. Time flies by. What I notice is how authentic it feels for me to be helping these students to better understand the questions and answers we are exploring and in the process, to better understand themselves. And it occurs to me that in all the other jobs I've ever had, this is the common theme that has given me satisfaction. At some level, "fostering understanding" has consistently been key.
And I realize that after all these years, I've finally become what I always wanted to be when I grew up. It's taken me more than 40 years to rediscover the answer to the question that my young friends in this classroom have found for themselves in just over a decade.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
The Roots of Calling
At a fairly young ageby fifth or sixth grade, certainlymost of us have a pretty good sense of what we love to doand what we don't. Of course, we usually can't put a job title on it at that point; for an 11-year-old, loving to draw doesn't translate into being an art director; nor is finding math class fun a sign that a youngster should think about becoming an accountant. Moreover, given that well over half of the jobs that kids will grow up into haven't even been invented yet, it's obvious that we can't expect too much specificity in career choice at such a young age.
Still, the essential core is already there. Our gifts, though nascent, have already begun to take shape. Deep within, a part of us knows that we are here on this planet for a reason. A sense of destiny, unformed as it is, lies just beneath the surface of our awareness. And, even as children, we naturally incline towards the experiences that allow us to express this.
Somewhere along the line, though, we get sidetracked. We silence that voice within that speaks to us about what really matters. We make choicesor have them made for usthat are driven by practical concerns. We set aside "childish" dreams in the interest of making a living or satisfying someone else's plans. We seem to forget what we knew as boys and girlswhat we most love to do.
But that wisdom never really goes away. It can be revived. We can open ourselves to that innate knowing that guided us when we were young: the inner urge to give our gifts away.
The roots of calling in our lives go back very deeplyto even before we were born. Calling is an expression of our essence; it's our embedded destiny. The seed of this destiny lies within us; one way or another it seeks to fulfill itself in the world. So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we're doing all we can to bring the fruits of our calling to bear.
Seeds of Destiny
One unmistakable conclusion that Dick has drawn from a lifetime of coaching individuals about life and career design is this: we all possess seeds of destiny. Each of us has within us God-given natural giftsunique potential for creative expression. From birth we have what we need to become all we can be. The challenge, of course, is to figure out how to make a living with our uniqueness; how to connect who we are with what we do.
But often we don't have to look very far to find our life's calling. We can simply start doing whatever we are already doingdriving a taxi, being a lawyer, raising a child, waiting on tableswith greater reverence for and attention to our natural gifts.
On a day-to-day basis, most jobs can't fill the tall order of making the world a better place, but particular incidents at work can have real meaning when we make valuable contributions, genuinely help someone in need, or come up with creative solutions to difficult problems. These transactions are meaningful because we do them with good will rather than simply to earn a paycheck. They are naturally rewarding and often occur effortlessly. Such moments put a whistle in our work. They fill purposeful liveslives that are apt to be happier than lives that lack such moments.
The way we approach our work depends on our "big picture" of life. Unfortunately, many of us lose that perspective; we get so focused on the particulars at hand that we make decisions impulsively, losing touch with what is really important to us.
Michelle Stimpson, Marketing Coordinator at the Minneapolis-based Carlson Companies is committed to helping people reconnect with what really matters to them. Too often, she has seen the "busyness" of business crushing people's spirits; in response, she has made it her special mission to help lift that heavy weight. She makes time on a daily basis to get to know the people she works with as people, not just co-workers. "I feel obligated to create a positive first impression with everyone who comes to work hereshowing them how they fit into the big picture, why they're important."
Michelle's parents must have known intuitively that their daughter's calling was creating joyher given middle name is Joy. Michelle's joy has always been to build bridges between people. Even as a small child, she loved to listen to people's stories, particularly stories about how they overcame obstacles. She recalls, "I've always loved to touch people's lives, to be a friend who was there. My gift is to surround myself with positive energy and give it off to other people."
Throughout her life, Michelle has chosen activities in which she could cheer people on and get them excited about things. As an intern at the Courage Center for the physically challenged, she researched patients' stories and sent them to their hometown newspapers. In college, she volunteered for the "welcome committee." Creating joy has been the common theme for her; she has expressed this destiny in many variations along the way. Michelle carries a small card in her billfold to remind herself of her true priorities: family, joy, simplicity, peace, and love. She and her husband Bill work hard at living these values every dayand, as Michelle's joy demonstrates, they are succeeding.
Michelle's embedded destiny to create joy illustrates the depth of calling within us. Each of us is, you can say, like an acorn. Somehow, almost magically, the acorn knows how to grow up to be an oak tree. It doesn't matter where you plant it, whether you put it in an oak forest, an orange grove, or even a junkyard, as long it gets the necessary sunlight and water, the acorn will develop into an oak tree. The acorn's destiny to flourish as an oak is implanted within itself. Attempting to make the acorn grow into a pine tree, for instance, will beat bestfruitless; more likely, it will destroy the tree altogether.
The same can be said for our own destinies. Like the acorn, each of us contains within us the power to realize the fullest expression of who we are. Naturally, we need a good environment in which to grow and thrive, but assuming we can cultivate that, we can grow our roots down and reach up to become tall and mighty in our own way.
Sadly, many of us spend our lives trying to grow our acorns into pine treesor palms or sycamores or something even more exotic and unlikely. And this stunts our growth. Yet our destiny continues to seek fulfillment in becoming an oak tree. Small wonder so many of us grow up feeling rather gnarled and twisted. Small wonder so many of us end up making work or lifestyle choices that hinder our natural growth.
One of the most common messages many youngsters receive is that they should rein in their natural creative capacities. How many of us have heard "You can't sing," "You can't draw," or "You're not a writer"? How many of us were told we were not good in one or all of the creative arts? And even those of us lucky enough to have had our creativity supported were likely to have been told that we could never make a living as a singer or artist or poet. Each time these limitations were imposed upon us, most of us acted as if they were the truth. We accepted the limitations, imposed them upon ourselves, and thus the limitations became real.
The lesson is that when we are given strong positive messages about our creative abilities, we tend to bring them forth quite successfully. Those of us fortunate enough to have had parents or mentors who encouraged our creative expression often find ourselves using those very abilities in our work lives as adults. Dick, for instance, who now makes a good deal of his living by giving speeches, had programmed into him from a very young age this simple message: "You can speak." He bought it.
Founder, The Inventure Group
"When I was in my pre-teens," says Dick, "my father strongly encouraged me to get up early every morning and look up a new word in the dictionary. At breakfast, I would share from memory my new word with him. I always picked ones that I thought would impress himwords like `ameliorate' or `erudition.' He believed that to be successful in any work or in life you needed to be able to express yourself clearly and articulately. For him, having the vocabulary to say precisely what you meant with a certain poetic flourish was a vital component of success. Encouraging me to learn a `word a day' was how he impressed upon me the importance of this.
"His next push was for me to take elocution lessons. I dreaded this. My friends would be playing hockey at the corner playground on Saturday mornings while I sat with Miss Loker learning how to speak. Miss Loker was a dowdy gray-haired woman in her 70s who seemed plucked directly from the musty volumes of English literature that she carried with her for my lessons. Always perfectly put together and freshly coiffed, she showed up on Saturdays with poems to be memorized and lessons on pronunciation and inflection to be learned. I would avoid the work she gave me all week long and try to cram it all in Friday afternoon. Consequently, I dreaded her visits and the inevitable humiliation of having to stand before her, in my own living room, reciting the week's lesson over and over and over.
"The true terror, though, was the recital, six months out, where she brought all her students together in an auditorium to recite a selected piece. For months, I came up with every conceivable excuse to avoid this event. Unfortunately, there was no way out. I ended up on stage before scores of expectant parents, reciting my piece under the stark glow of the theater lighting. Much to my surprise, though, I liked it. Hearing my voice reverberate through the hall and seeing the smiles and hearing the applause of the audience gave me a thrill I never forgot.
"As a sensitive and mostly introverted 13-year-old, elocution lessons did not help me get picked for hockey games on Saturday afternoons or be able to talk to girls at school. But they did teach me to be comfortable speaking in front of groups. In fact, after two years of lessons, I found within me a natural enjoyment for sharing stories in front of a live audience. I discovered that I had a gift for communicating my thoughts and feelings to groups of people.
"Today I make my living sharing stories and lessons learned with audiences of all sizes. Speaking in public is a part of my occupation that I truly enjoy. It brings forth the whistle in my work.
"I often wonder if my parents saw this natural inclination of mine for public speaking or whether they just felt it would be a good skill for me to acquire. In any case, they nurtured my gift for it, and in doing so, helped make it possible for me to make a living doing what I love to do."
Doing What You Love, Not What You Should
How many of us ended up where we are because someoneprobably a parent or a teacher "should'ed" us? Somewhere along the line, an adult or mentor of some sort told us that we should go into some line of work or some course of study "to make a good living" or because some other occupation "isn't practical," or so we can have "something to fall back on," if what we really love to do doesn't work out?
This is common with college students. An eighteen year-old freshman loads up his schedule with lots of math and sciences, even though what he really loves is theater. If he's lucky, about the time he's a junior, he realizes he's made a mistake and changes his major If he's not, he ends up graduating and taking a job that makes him miserable.
Dave remembers a young woman who took an Intro to Philosophy course from him. "She was quite good at it. She had a natural knack for understanding the often abstruse arguments of the philosophers we were reading. She seemed to really enjoy the interplay of ideas in the classroom; she wrote great papers, and often came to my office hours to discuss philosophical questions. Given her enthusiasm for the material, I naturally assumed she was majoring in Philosophy. But no, she said, she was pre-med. "Well, then, you'd better watch out," I joked, "given your talent, if you're not careful, you're going to end up a philosophy major." She just laughed.
"After the class, I lost track of her and didn't see her again until about two years later, when we happened to meet by chance in the library. I asked her how her studies were going, what courses she was taking, and so on. She listed the classes she was enrolled in that quarterthey were all upper division philosophy courses!
"`I thought you were pre-med,' I said.
"`I switched to philosophy,' she told me.
"I kidded her about the comparative job prospects of a philosopher and a physician. `Well, your parents must have been delighted about that!'
"She laughed, `Yeah, I thought when they found out I changed, they were going to kill me.' Then she got serious. `But I thought that if I didn't change, I might kill myself.'"
The message is this: we limit ourselves by doing what we think we should do. But by doing what we love to do, we expand our potential and increase the likelihood that the work we do will be consistent with our gifts. We maximize our chances for whistling while we work.
Nobody but you knows what your path should be. Maybe it means taking a job as a taxi driver. Perhaps it's the seminary or teaching philosophy to children. Maybe expressing your calling means to form a collectively owned organic farm; maybe it is to run for mayor of your small town. Or perhaps you will heed your calling to become a chef, a poet, or an adoptive parent. There are thousands of callings and limitless ways to express themand only we can name our calling and act upon it.
People who whistle while they work tend to have exercised choice in getting where they are. They tend to haveat some point or anothertaken the proverbial "bull by the horns" and set a direction for their lives. They tend to have pursued that direction, using their intuition as a compass to navigate with. This isn't to say they necessarily travel in a straight linethey may change course many times along the waybut the mere fact of choosing their life's course enables them to pursue their dreams energetically. And the sense of power that comes from knowing that their direction is freely chosen provides them with the impetus to keep choosing throughout their lives.
It's a useful exercise, therefore, to look back on our own lives and think about the twists and turns that led us to where we are today. What were the key decisions we madeor didn't makethat resulted in our becoming the person we are, with the work we have, living in the place we do, with the people we know?
Parents at Work
Our parents' attitudes toward work are the foundation upon which we build our own. The way Mom and Dad workand talk and think about workare the first images we have of the world of work and, therefore, have a deep and powerful influence on our own attitudes.
Growing up, we formed opinions about work by observing the behavior and listening to the words of our elders. Our parent or parent figuresthe most important people in our livesmodeled for us the meaning of work. Our own relationship to work evolved from that starting point.
For some of us, Father was the parent who most clearly characterized the nature and meaning of work. For others, it was Mother, and for many, it was both. If our parents whistled while they worked, and saw work as joy, we are more likely to seek enjoyment in our own work. If they saw their jobs as drudgery, as only a way to pay the bills, we are more likely to want to avoid it ourselves.
Of course, our beliefs and attitudes about work are complex and have their origins in many sources, but our basic pattern was formed by observing the work lives of our parent figures.
Dick observed his father and formed the foundation of his perspective on calling. "My father was a banker, an executive who worked for the same organization for 39 years. He worked hardgot up early in the morning six days a week to go to the office. He did so not simply to make a living, but because he believed that his efforts had a positive effect on individuals and the St. Paul, Minnesota community. This symbolic message, that work is a way to make a difference in people's lives, is deeply programmed into me. The bright side of what my father modeled to me about work was his masterful ministry to people. When I went to his office and saw him relate to people or we walked together down the streets of St. Paul, it was obvious that he was very skillful and enjoyed what he was doing. He whistled while he worked. He created the aura of an artist when he worked, echoing the words of Suzuki, who wrote, "I am an artist at living and my work of art is my life. I learned from my father that through giving yourself away you find your true self."
Excerpted from whistle while you work by Richard J. Leider, David A. Shapiro. Copyright © 2001 by Richard J. Leider and David Shapiro. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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former Vice President of the United States
Founding Editor, Fast Company magazine
coauthor of Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay
author of Working Wounded and The Bosses Complete Survival Guide, and syndicated columnist
Meet the Author
Leider is a career counselor, consultant, and director of Leider, Inc.
Shapiro is a writer, consultant, and education director of the northwest center for philosophy for children.
Shapiro is a writer, consultant, and education director of the northwest center for philosophy for children.
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