Leaders, What’s Your Vocation?

Posted 01.05.2011

Hopefully, I’m catching you with this post at a time when you still have a bit of that post-holiday season reflective, what am I trying to do with my life thing going on.  My research with leaders shows that increasingly many have very little time to think about what’s most important and what they’re really trying to accomplish.

Before you get too deep into the mode of running flat out, here’s a question that might be worth considering.  What’s your vocation?  By vocation, I don’t mean your job or your career.  I’m going back to the Latin root of the word, vocare, which means “to call.”  Years ago, the American writer Frederick Buechner summed up the idea of vocation pretty well when he wrote, "Where our deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet, we hear a further call."

In an interview with PBS, Buechner explained what he meant by that:

“Just the other day somebody my age in some sort of a crisis said, "I don't feel I'm being what I ought to be." And I said, "What makes you happiest? That's the clue." I struck him dumb. He said, "I never thought that. What makes me happy?" I think he was thinking, what makes me useful? What makes me religious? No, no, no. What makes you, in the deepest sense of the word, happy? That's what you should be doing, if the other part is also met — if it is something the world needs.”

Taylor1 I thought about that intersection of deep personal happiness and the world’s great need last week when I read the obituary of Dr. Billy Taylor.  Dr. Taylor crafted a 70 year vocation as a jazz performer and educator.  By reading his obituary  in the Washington Post, you can get a clear sense of how happy he was and how he answered his call by combining his great passion with what he identified as a great need in the world.  You can hear his vocation in this performance clip on You Tube.  (If you do nothing else, just click on it and let it play while you multitask. I promise you’ll feel better 2 minutes later.)

Dr. Taylor was a great performer who collaborated with the greats like Duke Ellington and Wynton Marsalis. He was the first African American bandleader on a network talk show with David Frost in 1969.  As gifted a performer as he was, his leadership and vocation really came as an educator.  He published his first book on bebop piano styles in 1949.  He was a radio and TV host starting in the 1950’s.  He earned his doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975.  For twenty years he was the jazz correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning.  He began as the Kennedy Center’s artistic adviser for jazz in 1994 and took the number of jazz concerts there from four a year to 150.

His vocation was to share his passion with the world. "There's no question that being an advocate eclipsed my reputation as a musician," Dr. Taylor said in a 2007 article in The Post Magazine. "It was my doing. I wanted to prove to people that jazz has an audience. I had to do that for me."

So, before you get totally up to you neck in stuff this year, take some time to consider your vocation. You may already may be in it and, if you’re not, it may not be that far away.  It might just require a different perspective and some tweaks to what you’re doing now.  If you want to explore that a bit more, I encourage you to join me on January 13 for a conversation on “Charting Your Course for 2011 with a Life GPS®