"DISCOVERING YOUR LIFEWORK:
Ask Any Good Questions Today?"
Leonard Lang, Ph.D.
What is it that you and you alone are called to do in this life? What is your lifework? Those aren’t questions most people ask each other or themselves very often. Yet they are among the most central questions of our lives--whoever you are, wherever you come from. In India, for example, people have traditionally
used the term dharma to talk about one’s path in life. Dharma can be literally translated as “right action,” but it is often used to describe what one was put on earth to do.
In the West, we have used a different term--calling. In the Bible, people are often called to do something. Abraham, Moses and in the New Testament Paul on the road to Damascus. Even in recent times we know that Mother Teresa felt called to start her life among the most disenfranchised.
But calling doesn’t only apply to those in religious orders. We each have a calling or lifework. As Mother Teresa said, “I am holy the way I am holy; you must be holy the way you must be holy.”
Of course, I can’t tell you how to do that. Neither could Mother Teresa because we must each find our own path, our own way to be holy, our own lifework. The term lifework may be unfamiliar, but I use it because calling and vocation often
seem archaic or confined to clergy.
However I do like the distinction made between career and vocation I found in Fast Company magazine a few years ago in an article by Timothy Butler and Alexander Waldroop. It stated, The word “…Vocation comes from the Latin “vocare” which means “to call.” It suggests that you are listening for something that calls out to you, something that comes to you and is particular to you.
“Career” comes originally from the Latin for cart and later from the Middle French word for race track. In other words, you go round and around really fast for a long time—but you never get anywhere.”
So how do we get somewhere? How do we even know where to go? I once interviewed a doctor who told me of a photo of himself in first gr ade scrawling in a childish print on the blackboard, “ I want to be a dokter.” To this day he has no idea what put that notion in his head, but he always knew that’s what he wanted to do and is now doing it with great satisfaction, if not with improved pen manship.
But most of us don’t have that certainty from an early age. And no one can teach it to you. What I can do is suggest an ally to help you discover your lifework and stay on track. An ally that will keep you creative, fresh, thoughtful, alert and of ten a bit humble. An ally that can stick with you for life. That ally is: questions.
Did you know that the average child asks 125 questions a day? If you’re a parent of a 4 or 5 year old you probably do know that. We adults ask only a paltry six. We may know more, but we may also be less willing to learn or see something
Fortunately, we can get back in the habit of asking questions. When Nobel Prize winning physicist, Isaac Isador Rabi was a child, his mother didn’t ask if he got the right answers at school or if he finished his homework. Every day, she asked him, “Did you ask any good questions today? It was in his habit of thinking as it can be in ours.
But we can’t just ask any old questions. As Rabi’s mother realized, her son had to ask good questions. How important is a good question? Albert Einstein was reportedly asked how would he approach a situation where he knew he’d be killed in an hour unless he could find a way out. He said he’d spend the first 55 minutes of the hour deciding the best question to ask. Then it would be easy in the remaining 5 minutes to get the right answer.
So what’s the right or best lifework question? Fortunately, there are many. Here’s one of my favorites. I learned it from a friend who acquired it while in Italy. I ca n’t pronounce it properly, but it goes something like, “Cosa fai di bello?” Translated literally, it means something like, what are you making or doing that’s beautiful? But what’s fascinating about this question, my friend said, is that it’s an Italian version of asking what do you do for a living.
How different a way to ask about your work life. (It turns out my friend’s usage was not accurate, but that idea remains an exciting and fresh way for us to think about our lifework.). By contrast, “What do you do for a living?” is basically about survival, isn’t it? What do you do to earn a living, maybe implying earning your right to live, as if its not God-given to us all? In any case, our usual question is an economically based question rather than a spiritual or aesthetic one.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m actually in favor of things like money and survival, economic or otherwise. I believe money should always be in your lifework plan, not to mention in your wallet and bank account. But I have learned that one of the oddities of lifework is that if you start thinking about it by asking the economic survival question first, you may never get to the questions about beauty, or spirit, or joy. In fact, asking about survival first may have the opposite effect and may even be hazardous to your health.
Studies tell us that when we go to jobs we dislike, we respond very badly indeed. We get sick. And when we try to go to work on Monday morning an alarming number of us die. That’s the day with the most heart attacks, and the hour with the most heart attacks is Monday between 8 and 9 a.m. Not surprisingly then,
numerous surveys show that half of all Americans are unhappy with their work and would change careers if they had a chance.
The lifework cure for all this is a plan based on good questions. In one of her most quoted poems, Mary Oliver asks us what we are doing with our one wild and precious life? The question is profound. It reminds us that we have but one
life, and that we are the ones who can decide what to do with it. It also indicates each life is a precious life and needs tending to but is also wild, full of unknowns and exciting possibilities. That’s the starting point for thinking about our answer.
Oliver’s own answer in this poem is to say on this day she’s outdoors experiencing the blessing of just being alive in the natural world. That’s a fabulous reminder that it isn’t all about work. But I think her question is a good one to also ask about our life in community as well. Are we treating our lifework as something wild and precious, something spiritual and meaningful, a blessing to ourselves and others?
Not that I originally asked myself what I was going to do with my one wild and precious life. Instead, I asked the economic question. What will people pay me to do? Actually it was a bit more complicated. I asked, what will someone pay me to do that won’t contradict my values, will let me be pretty independent, and will leave me time outside of work to do what I really love.
I proceeded to develop a work life that paid me adequately, didn’t contradict my values and left me time outside of work to do what I really loved. I had succeeded… but didn’t feel as if I had. I felt a spiritual hunger inside of me about my work life. It was as if I had a hole in my day’s activities, and that hole was called work. I was doing work that wasn’t my passion and that began to wear on me. But what felt more spiritually disheartening was that I knew I had been given talents and passions and experience and creative powers that were not being put to use.
I was discouraged until I realized if I could somehow make my unpassionate, halfhearted vision a reality, couldn’t I do the same with a more fully authentic and therefore motivating vision based on better questions about my passions and
values and skills? And if I was wrong, at least I’d have a great time trying to make it come true.
In the remaining couple of minutes, I’d like to very briefly share with you just 4 more questions. These are the lifework questions I use with clients, the questions that form the basis of my Guide to Lifework book, the questions I use in my lifework classes and coaching.
1. The first question is: Who are you? If you don’t know yourself, how can you know what you might do? More specifically, ask what are your values, passions, gifts and beliefs. Think clearly about this but check in with your
heart, your gut and your spirit.
2. Second, given your passions, values, skills, what is your purpose or focus? That’s the guiding principle, the rudder to keep you on course.
3. Third, what does it look like when you’re engaged in your purpose? What are the details? In other words, are you working alone or in a big office with a team, in Minneapolis or Maui?
And fourth, you need to make all this practical. So ask, How do I succeed? That translates into action plans, timelines, success partners and networks. This is also the time for those questions about finances and economic survival that we
intentionally put off at the start.
These 4 questions can do remarkable things. People begin to believe that who they are matters. They realize they can contribute to others more gladly and open-heartedly because it is based on who they are. They become energized and that energy is infectious. In one lifework class, the power of one person ’s dreams almost took over the class.
I couldn’t get people to stop talking about her plan for a retreat center, or even talk one at a time like good obedient adults are supposed to do. First her partner got excited, then a small group, then the whole class got involved offering suggestions and daydreaming aloud about what they’d do if they were at her retreat. They were ready to go there that night if only they could. But it wasn’t because we’d heard an exceptional idea. Rather we saw what was unique and exceptional about her which was shining through as she spoke about her passion.
So I invite you to look around you and think about everyone here and everyone in your life having a unique lifework, a purpose in this world, a way to be holy the way only they and you can be holy. And then think of how to support this. And as a start, I invite you to ask at least one other person today, what are you doing that’s beautiful?
© 2003—2006 Leonard Lang Copied with permission
Leonard Lang, Ph.D., uses training and rapid coaching to help people get unstuck, get motivated and get moving toward their most important personal and organizational goals. Leading jobseekers at all stages of their work lives through his innovative career-building program with workshops and coaching, he has also captured that program in his step-by-step book, "Guide to Lifework: Working with Integrity and Heart."
Read additional articles and testimonials; sign up for a creativity Ezine; or contact Leonard for a free lifework questionnaire and coaching information at
The New Context of Work
President, Livelihood®, Santa Fe, New Mexico • (505) 466-1510
“Work is moving from supporting only our survival to nourishing and encouraging our livelihood.”
We used to assume that work was a place where we worked hard and were loyal. And, if the business was successful, there was an implicit guarantee of security and lifetime employment. In the past few years, however, a handful of factors has combined to produce a transformation in the very nature and meaning of work.
Manufacturing, and now service jobs, are moving off shore. Technology is replacing people. Companies are outsourcing, and there have been massive cutbacks in many industries.
Now we're seeing a new trend — successful companies are laying off people. American Express recently announced a substantial profit, while at the same time, laying off thousands of people. All of these factors combine to strike at the very heart of our collective assumption about work.
People go to work to earn their daily bread — to have a roof over their head and food in their stomachs. Our collective belief is that we work in order to survive. But we long for more than just our bodies to be alive. We want our souls to be alive, too. We want our hearts to be touched. We want our spirits to soar.
I believe that the underlying purpose of this profound transformation in the workplace is precisely to fulfill these needs. Work is moving from supporting only our survival to nourishing and encouraging our livelihood.
What is Livelihood?
Livelihood has three components. The first is survival. We still need to eat, we still need to have shelter, and we still need to be responsible for our families. These needs don't just vanish. They still must be met. To put it simply, Stage 1 of livelihood is: “You're alive.”
Secondly, we want our souls to be nourished and our hearts to be touched.We hunger for our work to provide us with full creative expression. Our gift, our purpose, our “vocation of destiny” longs to be both experienced and expressed. We want more than just survival. We want our aliveness to flourish. Stage 2 of livelihood is: “Your aliveness.”
When you take “Your aliveness” and contribute it through your self, through your product or service – out to others, out into the world – Stage 3 of livelihood occurs: “Their aliveness.”
Imagine work truly being a place of.
livelihood for each and every person. Imagine the context of work as a vehicle for the expression of livelihood. Imagine people demanding that livelihood be the state of work.
When we consider our heart, our soul and our spirit's desire, this is the work we want. I invite your active participation in having the context of work be LIVELIHOOD.
Thank you Martin for your thoughtful article on Livelihood! My soul is nourished and I feel most alive in the world of self employment. Click here to rekindle your
entrepreneurial spirit and explore your talents and gifts.