Book Review: Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay

CallingsCallings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay

Rating: ★★★★☆

I first heard of David Isay in the On Being podcast, where he was interviewed by the host Ms. Krista Tippett in “Listening as an Act of Love”. I discovered that Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, an organization dedicated to recording and sharing the stories of people from all walks of life. (I don’t live in the U.S., and I’m a bit of a hermit from social media, so it’s still pretty new to me.) I was moved by the podcast, so after I listened to the episode, I checked out StoryCorps and their available publications.

In the end, I gravitated to Callings for a very personal reason. At the time I picked it up, I found myself stuck in a job that was no longer fulfilling, while my Facebook feed (before I’d stopped going on it altogether) seemed to feature a lot of successful young entrepreneurs, or else my peers who’d inherited the family business and were currently living it up by travelling the world. I was lost and tired and I guess I was looking for permission to have a vision for myself that didn’t involve this monolithic definition of success. So Callings was exactly what I needed.

The first thing that I love about the book is that the title is in the plural form, signifying the many kinds of professions that can be considered a “calling”. Usually when one thinks of a calling, something noble comes into mind, like being a doctor, or a teacher, or a priest. Being a bridge-tender or sanitation worker doesn’t immediately fit into our schema of a “calling”. But those kinds of people, among others, are exactly who we meet in the book. Some of them are in jobs or professions that fall far outside the usual cultural meanings and expectations of work and success, but who’ve found meaning in what they do, anyway. Here, we meet Kerry and Ken, ironworkers on the Golden Gate Bridge, who find that an unexpected part of their job was to convince people who look like they’re going to commit suicide not to jump. We meet sanitation workers Angelo and Eddie, who find meaning in their work by engaging with the people they meet along their route. We meet Lee, a neurosurgeon, talking to his eighth-grade science teacher, Al, whom he wanted to thank as planting the seeds to his career. We meet Rose, a barkeep, who would take her irresponsible customers’ paychecks only to put them in a safe, give them a $20 for the night, and return their paychecks at the end of the night. She did this because she knew they had families to care for.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who works as a grocer will find his or her job fulfilling, or that we should just suck it up in our current jobs and find a way to make it meaningful. There’s something to be said for leaving one’s job when one is no longer happy or growing, as I eventually did. What Callings presents, though, are different versions of happiness at work, and how these people, who don’t have big paychecks or fancy awards, found a way to make meaning from their situations. This book, I believe, undermines two of our culture’s dominant narratives on work: (1) that success is defined by money, recognition, or fame, and (2) that happiness at work is based on “finding your passion”, rather than the other way around – making a passion of where you are. Regardless of background, what holds all these stories together is how these people find numinous moments in the seemingly ordinary moments of their lives, and how they weave these moments together in meaningful narratives of work.

This brings to mind a quote I read recently on hope, attributed to Vaclav Havel: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” For me, meeting the people in this book has given hope many faces. And, it also shows that success at work has many faces.

I only wished that there were more stories of younger people seeking to make meaning of where they are, but I suppose reading the stories of older people has its own merits. It was fascinating to see how intricately our work is tied with our lives throughout the lifespan, and how we both define our work and how we allow it to define us.

Callings was an uplifting, refreshing book. Would definitely recommend to anyone needing an inspirational read.

Read on March 2, 2018 | Goodreads Account


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