Don’t forfeit your dreams

Your career should support your calling

July 9 was the third anniversary of my father’s death. As I reflected on his life, I remembered an experience I had with him when I was 17 years old.
We were finishing dinner and I initiated a conversation about life and our purpose in life. I told my father that the world would be a better place if we all kept what we needed and gave the rest away. I suggested, with a high degree of 17-year-old self-righteousness, that the world needed more love and less “stuff.” Dad asked: “and what stuff would you give away?” That was, understandably, a tough question. I don’t remember how I responded. I just remember how I felt: uncertain and afraid to think about what it might mean for me.  
After our conversation, I asked if I could borrow the car to go to a friend’s house, and “Oh, by the way, Dad, I need money for gas.” Dad said yes to borrowing the car. And then he said (tongue in cheek): “See if you can get that car to go on love!”
Fast forward. Sept. 16, 2000. It was my gala 50th birthday celebration! When dad had the opportunity to speak, he told the story about the car and gas, and love, and my idea of a better world. What he then said took my breath away: “Perhaps somewhere between where Karen was and where I was…is the right place to be.”
I was touched by my father’s remembering and the way that he had reflected on our conversation over the years. I appreciated his capacity to listen to me – really listen for understanding, even when he clearly did not agree. And I appreciate how he was able to move toward the center with curiosity.
My father, like many of us, lived with a number of “shoulds” during his lifetime. It was only in his later years that he seemed to begin to question whether or not the “shoulds” were worth it.

Stuck in shoulds
“You should get a college education.”
“You should have a career.”
“You should climb the ladder.”

Elle Luna, artist, speaker, and author of a book titled “The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion,” writes: “We arrive at this crossroads over and over again, and every day, we get to choose. Starting out or starting over, making a career change or making a life change, the most life-affirming thing you can do is to honor the voice inside that says you have something special to give, and then heed the call and act.”
Like my father, there are a number of leaders who arrive at the “top of the ladder” wondering if they have been on the right ladder after all. They have forfeited what Luna describes as their “calling” or their “must” for a job or a career. They have given up their passion for music, for medicine, for law or education in order to respond to an internal or external “should.”
I recently heard a neighbor describe his son’s success in business, and he added: “He really needs to go back to school for his master’s degree in order to get ahead.” His son is also an accomplished musician. That is his calling; his passion and his “must.” He has no desire to go back to school. If he does, it will be to fulfill his father’s should.
The temptation is to believe we need to either follow our dream or take the crossroad of shoulds.
Luna offers a refreshing perspective. She suggests that it doesn’t have to be either/or. In fact, she suggests that for some, having a job and a career supports the “calling.” She provides the following examples: T.S. Elliot was also a banker; One of the greatest composers of our time, Philip Glass, worked as a plumber and was 42 before he was recognized for his musical genius; Albert Einstein was not able to find work for two years after graduating from college; and Vincent van Gogh wasn’t recognized as an artist until after his death.
There are countless examples of people who used their jobs and careers to support their passion. The key: They never let go of the dream; they didn’t forfeit their “must” for a should.
Mark Twain said it well: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

-Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit

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