When I was working in tech sales fresh out of college, I knew one thing for certain regarding my career — I knew that I didn’t want to work in tech sales.
Beyond that, I was pretty clueless. I had a hazy vision of myself one day becoming a writer, but I couldn’t figure out if that was truly what I wanted to be or just a result of watching Hank Moody be cool in the show Californiacation.
The desire to be a writer was a persistent background hum that I needed to bring front and center and investigate.
Fortunately, I was able to do that pretty easily. I wrote and wrote, and discovered that it was fun and satisfying, and that people would pay me to do it.
My childhood self, an avid writer who had been torn from me somewhere in the crowded, influencing social world of adolescence, would’ve been proud to see me listening to my calling, that work that is both fulfilling and interesting.
What I did — trying it out — runs in line with the common advice to people who are seeking their true calling — to try a bunch of things and see which one grabs hold of your attention and grows it into an obsession.
This is definitely a good approach, but it seems like it’s better for college students and 19th century aristocrats than the average working person, even a highly driven one, who has to make a living.
The Problem With the “Try Everything” Method
The problem, put simply, is that we don’t have enough time to try everything, especially when some jobs like corporate lawyer and astronaut take years of training and school to get into.
For someone with a job, even just trying out something like volunteering in animal rescue or shadowing a doctor is a huge time commitment.
Quitting a job to pursue something is an even greater risk. And it’s one that shouldn’t be taken without a firm grip on one’s level of interest in that field.
This high risk of trying a new job without certainty that it’s actually their calling leaves many people stuck in a catch-22.
They can’t justify quitting their job to pursue another career path unless they have more information, and they can’t get that level of information without actually taking the job.
Another problem with the “try everything method” is that a lot of the work you might love doing is totally invisible to you. You just haven’t bumped up against them yet.
And many of the jobs that you are aware of are difficult to try. If Ron the car salesman, for example, has the notion that his true calling might be animal science, how is he to physically try that out?
It’s tricky, to say the least. He could shadow a scientist, but does he know one? Probably not. I sure don’t. He could go get a degree, but that’s expensive.
No, there’s a better way than trying everything physically. It has its uses, but it’s not the only technique you can use to evaluate an interest or find your calling.
You can also try things mentally, in the imaginative realm. That’s where reading comes in.
Using Books to Test Your Calling Hypotheses
Books provide you with a fast, low-risk way to test whether or not a job or subject is worth pursuing.
Picking up a book on advertising, for instance, is a great way to assess how much you’ll enjoy working in the industry. It’s a smart move before going through the process of interviewing for a job.
We all have these hypotheses about our callings, these potential paths we could see ourselves taking. Books help us interrogate these hypotheses to see if they’re fact or make believe.
An Example of Using Books to Test Curiosity in a Field
For example, Ron the car salesman, from the previous example, thinks that he might like being an animal scientist, but he isn’t really sure enough about it to make any serious moves.
What I might prescribe to Ron would be a course of reading to verify that that curiosity is more than just a silly result of romanticization, and actually something he should try out.
Ron might first read a novel about an animal scientist, not something fantastical like Dr Doolite, but a serious work of realistic fiction that depicts the life of an animal scientist, albeit with some dramatization.
Having seen himself in the protagonist, Ron might then decide to read a few nonfiction books in the field of animal science.
Perhaps he finds all the talk about experiments and studies to be boring, and only likes the parts about helping the animals.
With this insight into his own interests, perhaps it occurs to him that he’d like to be a veterinarian.
So he reads a memoir of a veterinarian and he’s floored. Maybe, during a scene where he’s helping a horse give birth, Ron’s heart sinks at difficulty, rises at success, and, for a moment, feels as if it’s stopped entirely as the calf enters the world.
Such an emotional response must mean something, right?
Ron has uncovered something about himself, something hidden long ago. He reads about veterinary science and actually enjoys it, even the dense texts that make little sense to him. And his curiosity is in no way diminished when he learns of the hard or gross parts of the job.
In essence, he has found a possible calling worth trying out, either by shadowing a vet or applying for a program.
In sum, books serve many purposes, but an often neglected one is that they can help you assess potential life paths.
In a similar light, they can also reveal to you new ones.
Use Books to Discover New Possible Callings
Harold Bloom, the literary critic, once said that one of the reasons we read is because we cannot know enough people in one lifetime.
He, of course, was referring to fiction and meeting characters in those stories, but I believe a slightly altered version of his idea can be applied to the conundrum of finding a calling as well.
A reason we should read books, both fiction and nonfiction, is because we cannot try everything in one lifetime. We cannot experience everything in the physical world. We cannot know all that exists.
You Might Have Interests That Are Currently Unknown to You
For all you know you could have a strong interest in beat farming hidden deep inside of your soul, or psyche, or whatever you want to call it.
In life, where we work a job and rarely come in contact with other fields of work or fields of study, many of these rocks stay unturned. Our authentic interests lie hidden.
Reading, especially when done widely across genres and subjects, offers you a way to explore the world and uncover topics of interest that otherwise would’ve remained invisible.
For example, I knew nothing about my raving curiosity for political philosophy until I read some history books on the US revolution.
Hearing about the founding fathers discussing ideas about government made me pick up books by Plato and Hobbes.
I’m not a political philosopher, but it is a possible path I could evaluate further using the method from the last section.
Also, the books don’t necessarily have to be job-related. They can be nonfiction books about various topics.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine a programmer is reading a beginner-friendly physics book just to see what that field’s all about.
Suppose they find themselves entranced by the topic of thermodynamics, and can’t get it out of their heads.
Thermodynamics isn’t a job that they’ve discovered. But they have found a topic that is used by professionals in many jobs, from engineering to academic work.
You can also find potential callings in fiction. If one of the villains in a thriller is an art dealer, and you find yourself wishing she was in more scenes so you could hear her discuss art, then wallah, you’ve discovered a clue about yourself.
Reading widely across many fields — history, science, literature, philosophy, current non-fiction — is a great way to get in touch with your true curiosities that might clue you into your calling.
Hey if you want to start reading more, check out my article “how to become well-read (a 6-step plan)”.
Books as Flashlights into Your Psyche
The mind is a dark mysterious place that’s worth exploring. When you’re familiar with yourself and your curiosities, you’re better able to decide what you want to do with your time, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to do it.
Books are flashlights into this cave of the self. They reveal to you your true curiosities, true tastes as some might put it.
While life experience is always the better test of whether or not you’ll like doing something, it’s often unfeasible, and reading a book is perhaps the best proxy for real experience that we have.
So, next time you think you might have a passion for firefighting or entrepreneurship, go read a few books about it and the people who do it, before stepping into the blaze.
If you want to learn about some new subjects, check out the self education roadmaps on the Knowledge Lust website, where I share step-by-step guides for self learning many subjects, from philosophy to chemistry.