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The Art of Work
A Proven Path to Discovering What You Were Meant To Do
By Jeff Goins
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Jeff Goins
All rights reserved.
Listening to Your Life
The Call to Something Old, Not New
Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.
You don't "just know" what your calling is. You must listen for clues along the way, discovering what your life can tell you. Awareness comes with practice.
The halls of Emory Hospital were particularly busy that day as Jody Noland navigated the crowds to locate her friend's room. She brushed past people visiting their loved ones, and a queasy thought came to her: How could something so terrible be happening to Larry?
Larry Elliott had recently decided to reprioritize his life, selling his successful insurance business to serve hurting children in the world. It began with serving alongside his wife, Bev, as house-parents at a children's home in Alabama but had led to a leadership position at another children's home outside of Atlanta. He was changing gears in what he thought would be the second half of his life, but he had much less time than he realized.
Larry and Bev decided to take their family on a long-awaited vacation to Europe. This was a chance to spend some quality time together and reconnect with their kids. It was a trip everyone was looking forward to.
The pain started on the flight to Italy, beginning with a throbbing sensation between Larry's temples. In Florence, a CAT scan revealed a mass in his brain, and the family was forced to end the vacation prematurely. On the flight home, the pilot had to fly at a lower altitude to minimize the amount of pressure in Larry's head. The next morning, he was scheduled to go into surgery. At forty-eight years old, Larry was battling a brain tumor.
His room wasn't that difficult to find, as Jody later recalled in her book: "It was the one where people overflowed into the hallway." There was not enough space to fit all the friends he had accumulated in his lifetime. And in spite of the pain, Larry did his best to comfort his visitors.
There was a sense of urgency to his demeanor that day. At one point, he asked his wife if she'd brought a pen and paper, something that seemed odd to Jody. Later she asked Bev what that was about, and Bev explained that Larry wanted to write a letter to each of their children before going into surgery. He didn't know if he would make it out alive and wanted to express his love, affirming what was so unique and special about each of his children.
Larry lived another nine months before ultimately losing his life to cancer.
That same year, Jody lost two other friends who were both in their forties and passed away without warning. The deaths came as a shock to everyone. As Jody watched three grieving families, she thought of the comfort Larry's words had provided his family. She hurt for the children, those "who knew unquestionably of their parents' love, but desperately missed the reassurance and security that their physical presence provided." She couldn't stop thinking of the letter he wrote and the difference it had made.
Jody started sharing Larry's story with others. "Don't you think this is something we should all do for the people we love?" she would say, trying to drum up interest. And many would respond, "Yes, but I'm not a writer," or, "Yes, but I have no idea where to begin."
"One way of knowing our gifting," Jody told me, "is when something that seems easy to us doesn't seem easy to others. I kept thinking, How hard could it be? Maybe I could help people do this ... What seemed so hard for so many people seemed easy to me.
She eventually relented to that prompting.
Jody established Leave Nothing Unsaid, a program and book that helps people of all ages write letters to their loved ones. After Larry's death, she had been inspired, but the idea didn't become reality until she decided to act. She kept thinking someone should do something. Finally she realized that someone was her.
At fifty-eight years old, Jody Noland is beginning to understand how her life has been converging for decades on this very moment. She is doing what she was born to do, and although the circumstances have been hard, even painful, she's learned an important lesson. All along, her life was teaching her something, even in the pain. And if she hadn't paid attention, she just might have missed it.
Happiness Is Overrated
There are two stories we hear when it comes to pursuing a dream. First is the tale of the self-made man or woman. In this story, we see a driven individual overcoming adversity and defying the odds to achieve success. Many of us have believed this is the only way to achieve anything—through sheer tenacity. The process is simple: set a goal, work hard, and achieve your objectives. You can be anything you want, do anything you want; all you have to do is work hard. You are in complete control of your destiny. But things are not always so simple.
In the film The Secret of My Success, Michael J. Fox plays a young upstart named Brantley who is trying to get ahead in the corporate world. After continual rejection, he finally explodes in another failed job interview, saying: "Everywhere I've been today there's always been something wrong: too young, too old, too short, too tall. Whatever the exception is, I can fix it. I can be older; I can be taller; I can be anything."
Like many people, Brantley believed that if he put his mind to it, he could accomplish anything. In the end, though, he realized the secret of success is that sometimes getting everything you want doesn't always make you happy.
The second story is the opposite of the first. Instead of the self-made path, you have a determined one. Whatever will be, will be. Life happens in spite of what we want. You have no control over anything, and in the end, you will look back on your life and understand there could have been no other way. But where is the adventure in that—in having everything scripted out for you? And what of the countless stories of those on their deathbeds, confessing regret? Even when we talk in terms of "destiny" and "fate," we want to believe we have some control over our lives. There must be another way.
The first path says you can be whatever you want; the second says you have no choice. But perhaps there is a third way. What if there was more to your purpose than getting what you wanted? What if there were some things you couldn't control, but how you reacted to those situations made a difference? Is there a purpose to your life, or are we all just bouncing around in a chaotic universe? Everyone from religious scholars to scientists and career counselors has pondered these questions. So let's look at them pragmatically.
Here's what we know. A lot of people are unhappy with their jobs, where they spend a significant amount of time. A recent poll found that only 13 percent of the world's workers are "engaged" in their jobs. The other 87 percent feel disconnected from work and more frustrated than fulfilled. These numbers shouldn't come as a surprise. When a friend says she hates her job or a family member talks badly about his boss, we aren't shocked. This is acceptable behavior. We've been conditioned to think of work as drudgery, a chore you endure in exchange for a paycheck. And this is a problem.
When you are stuck fulfilling an obligation instead of chasing a dream, you aren't your best self. We all know that. This is why we find more and more people moving from one occupation to the next. They are doing their best to be happy but failing miserably. Most of us have done this at some point, quitting one thing for the promise of something better. And we were disappointed to find that the next job or relationship held the same complications as the one we were escaping.
But maybe we're going about this all wrong. Maybe the worst way to be happy is to try to be happy. The work of acclaimed Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl supports this idea. A Holocaust survivor, Frankl had intimate experience with suffering, and it taught him an important lesson. Human beings, he argued, are not hardwired for seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. They want meaning. In spite of what we say, we don't want happiness. It's simply not enough to satisfy our deepest longings. We are looking for something more, something transcendent—a reason to be happy.
As part of his life-saving therapy with suicidal patients and his own experience in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl learned there are three things that give meaning to life: first, a project; second, a significant relationship; and third, a redemptive view of suffering. He realized that if people, even in the bleakest of circumstances, have a job to do, something to return to tomorrow, then they have a reason to live another day. For Frankl, the book manuscript he had been working on before entering the camp and the hope of seeing his wife were what kept him alive. And in time, he was able to see the purpose in his pain. Because he had work to do, someone whom he believed was waiting for him, and a certain attitude toward suffering, he survived it when others did not. And his memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, became one of the most popular books of the twentieth century, affecting millions of lives.
What we often don't realize is that making our story about us, even about our pain, is the wrong approach. Dwelling on the past or fixating on the future won't help you find fulfillment. The way you beat a feeling of purposelessness, according to Frankl, isn't to focus on the problem. It's to find a better distraction. Which is a roundabout way of saying you have to stop trying to be happy. But doesn't everyone want to be happy? Maybe not. Life is too short to do what doesn't matter, to waste your time on things that don't amount to much. What we all want is to know our time on earth has meant something. We can distract ourselves with pleasure for only so long before beginning to wonder what the point is. This means if we want true satisfaction, we have to rise above the pettiness of our own desires and do what is required of us. A calling comes when we embrace the pain, not avoid it.
Tragedies, unfortunately, are inevitable. Bad things happen to good people, whether we want them to or not. What determines our destiny, though, is not how successful we are at dodging hardship but what we do when it comes. Pain and suffering, though intimidating obstacles, are not strong enough to keep us from our purpose. In fact, they can sometimes be the very catalysts for such discoveries.
That's the lesson Jody Noland learned from her friend Larry and what she almost forgot when her own husband was on his deathbed.
The Good Kind of Fear
Fear is a powerful deterrent, but it can also be an effective motivator. The fear of failure or rejection can be unhealthy and irrational, but fear of not telling your loved ones how much you care is important. So not all fear is bad. Some people, though, let fear run their lives. They avoid risk, hoping to minimize the chances of failure, and in effect move in the opposite direction of a calling. The trick is to know when to listen to your fear and when to not.
In 2009, Mike Noland, Jody's husband, was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. Jody started searching the Internet for what she could learn about his prognosis. Realizing he had little time left to live, she began to prepare for the inevitable. Mike, however, had other ideas.
His way of coping was to deny the imminence of death. In Jody's words, he "hunkered down" and refused to acknowledge reality. He didn't read about his condition, didn't ask the doctors any questions, and continued with life as usual—except, of course, for the regular chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
"In the midst of all of that," she told me, "he was concerned about his clients and whether it was time to execute a buy-sell agreement on his business. Doing that meant he was accepting his certain death sentence. The day the agreement was executed, his mind began to fog."
Listening to Jody relate the story over the phone years after the fact, I could still hear the pain in her voice. I could feel the urgency. She pleaded with Mike to write letters to his children, a gesture she had seen make a dramatic impact in Larry's family. In fact, so moved by her friend's gesture, she had begun helping others do the same by teaching a letter-writing workshop that empowered people to share words of affirmation with their loved ones. She wanted her family to receive that same comfort she had provided for strangers. But her husband resisted. He didn't believe the cancer was that serious. And after weeks of trying to persuade him, even resorting to writing the letters for him, Jody finally gave up, deciding to comfort her husband with whatever time they had left.
The cancer killed Mike quickly. Within three months of the diagnosis, he was gone, never having started a single letter. After the funeral, his daughter Nancy asked Jody if he had written any letters like the ones her stepmom had helped others write. Jody was devastated. She felt like a failure. In spite of her encouragement and occasional nagging, none of it had worked. She knew the power of letter writing, the impact a few words of encouragement could make. But there were no letters for Nancy, no words of affirmation from her now deceased father, and there never would be.
After Mike's death, Jody wondered whether or not she should continue the letter-writing workshops.
"My immediate conclusion was that I should abandon this dream," she recalled in her book. "How could I advise others to do this when I had failed so miserably in my own home?" She doubted if this was something she was called to, after all. "I really thought I had misunderstood."
Jody gave away the workbooks she had made, keeping only one as a keepsake, and she let the grieving begin.
A year later, a man called her, looking for a copy of the workbooks she used to have. His wife's best friend was dying of breast cancer and wanted to write a letter to her two daughters. She was desperate but didn't know where to begin or what to say. Jody explained she wasn't doing the workshops anymore but sent the woman her one remaining workbook. "Her death was so imminent," she wrote, "that a courier was sent to pick up the workbook."
Several weeks later, Jody received a thank-you note. Because her workbook had helped the dying mother express her love for her daughters in writing, she was able to spend the last few weeks of her life in peace. Jody wept. All this time, she had been afraid of failing, of trying and not succeeding, but now she understood what was really at stake. She knew the thing she had to fear the most was failing to answer this calling she had received, no matter how much it hurt.
"I would rather go for it and fail than not try," she said.
What We Learn from Fairy Tales
At the beginning of every story, we see something that looks a lot like normal life. Long before the protagonist slays a dragon or embarks on a quest, we see her in some unsuspecting place, dreaming of something more. In Beauty and the Beast (my personal favorite Disney classic), Belle sings of wanting more than "this provincial life." In Star Wars, Luke can't wait to escape the boredom of a farmer's life. And in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy sings about life "somewhere over the rainbow." Our lives are haunted by the ghosts of what might have been.
It's easy to dismiss such people as dreamers or even downright crazy. But are they really? Before a chain of events sets the hero on course to his destiny, there is a sense that there should be more to life than this. You may be feeling it right now. At an important moment, everything makes sense, as it did for Eric Miller when he realized the clock wasn't ticking away on his son's life any faster than his own and when Jody Noland saw how significant a letter from a loved one could be. This is what storytellers call the "inciting incident," the moment when everything changes and the tale of an average person living an average life becomes one of mythic proportions.
But something must occur for this to take place. The person must enter the story, either by choice or because she's forced into it. Belle goes to find her father. Luke leaves home with Obi-Wan. Dorothy gets swept up in a tornado. In any great narrative, there is a moment when a character must decide to become more than a bystander. It's an important moment that always seems to happen in the mind before it unfolds in real life. This choice, though, is always preceded by something deeper, a nagging feeling that there must be more.
This is why when people are called to some great task, they know it. Immediately they recognize the prompting to step up and do something significant, because they have been waiting for it. Before the call comes, we must possess some sense that awakens us to our purpose.
Awareness, then, is what prepares us for the call.
Before you know what your calling is, you must believe you are called to something. It doesn't matter if you know what. In order to cultivate awareness, you must be willing to act, to step out and see what happens. And once you are convinced that purpose will not find you, that you will have to go in search of it, you are ready. Until you make this choice, though, you will feel frustrated, seeing people succeed and chalking it up to luck or some unfair advantage. And in doing this, you will deceive yourself.
The truth is some people do get lucky, and others have been born into special privilege, but what are those things to you? You are still called.
A calling may be many things, but it is not fair. Still, you must answer it.
Before you begin your life's work, you need to prepare. Chances come to us all, but only those who are ready recognize them. You don't need some big plan. You just need to be a little dissatisfied. You need to have some vague premonition that the world is not completely right. That's what awareness is: a sense that something more is possible.
Excerpted from The Art of Work by Jeff Goins. Copyright © 2015 Jeff Goins. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Author's Note xi
Introduction: The Cancer That Couldn't Stop a Triathlete xv
Part 1 Preparation 1
1 Listening to Your Life: The Call to Something Old, Not New 3
2 Accidental Apprenticeships: The Teacher Appears When the Student Least Expects 31
3 Painful Practice: When Trying Isn't Good Enough 55
Part 2 Action 83
4 Building Bridges: The Leap That Wasn't a Leap 85
5 Pivot Points: Why Failure Is Your Friend 111
6 The Portfolio Life: A New Kind of Mastery 131
Part 3 Completion 155
7 Your Magnum Opus: What Legacy Looks Like 157
Conclusion: The Work Is Never Done 179
Appendix: Your First Steps Down the Path 195
About the Author 212