THE BLOG
05/24/2016 09:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2017

Pursuing a Life of Meaning

As a business professor, students often ask me where they should take their careers in order to have the most impact. They are expecting a straightforward answer: that they should work in finance in a large resource-extraction company, say, or in the advocacy department of a multinational non-profit organization. Instead, I am quick to tell them, "Wrong question, try again." The key question is one that only they can answer: "What were you meant to do with your life?"

I write about this in my new book, challenging students to recognize that we all have a goal or purpose to what we do. Where do you devote your energy? How much time do you spend with your family, or in the woods, or pursuing wealth? Are your relationships transactional or relational; that is, do you treat people and the natural world as a community that sustains and includes you, or merely as objects for achieving the success of your own pursuits?

Pursue a Calling, Not a Job

Henry David Thoreau wrote on his time at Walden Pond: "I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his [sic] dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours." The word "unexpected" is central to his message and reflects a belief that the pursuit of a calling is about opening up to the unknown. Chances are that if we are genuinely open to the possibilities of a calling, we will find that satisfaction will come from someplace far different from where we expected to find it.

It's about connecting to a purpose that is bigger than you and caring enough to devote your life, energies, passions, and love toward addressing it. Satisfaction comes, not just from some inner feeling, but also from an assessment that what you are connected to and care about is being addressed. It comes, not from pleasure, but from meaning.

None of this is easy, and many do not even try to find their calling. College degrees, fancy cars, big houses, and happy Facebook posts: these can all become ways of projecting to people around you that you have worth. But they are not worth themselves. We live in a world of tremendous pressures for conformity and self-centeredness. I watch my students struggle with these pressures, most vividly at graduation time.

Many start their education with aspirations to eschew big salaries and work to pursue social good no matter their income. But when they look at the salaries that large consulting firms are giving to their peers, they begin to bend and yield. Some have little choice. All too often, their cost of living soon includes homes, cars, retirement accounts, creating chains that hold them back from keeping that promise. But your debt load, cost of living, or resume should not stop you from pursuing a life's work of meaning. It may make that pursuit more challenging, but it does not make it impossible. The key is to be authentic about who you are and what you are meant to with your life's work.

Authenticity and Your Calling

Jim March, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, was given the opportunity to teach anything he wanted to Stanford University. He chose to teach business management by way of the literary classics. In a 2014 interview, he explained how Don Quixote is the most important of them all:

Quixote is hardly a good model for leadership, but he provides a basis for thinking about what justifies great action. Why do we do what we do? Our standard answer is that we do what we do because we expect it to lead to good consequences. Quixote reminds us that there is another possible answer: We do what we do because it fulfills our identity, our sense of self. Identity-based actions protect us from the discouragement of disappointing feedback. Of course, the cost is that it also slows learning. Both types of actions are essential elements of human sensibility, but our usual conversations -- particularly in business settings and schools -- tend to forget the second.... We live in a world that emphasizes realistic expectations and clear successes. Quixote had neither. But through failure after failure, he persists in his vision and his commitment. He persists because he knows who he is.

This is the essence of a calling. Have a vision, see a reality, make it so, even when those around you (like those around Don Quixote) think it is foolish or crazy. You may fail, but you will learn who you are and be your own person. Henry Ford failed and went broke five times before he succeeded. When Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in the mid-1970s and predicted a day when every home would have a computer, many thought it an absurd idea.

What Will be Your Mark in the World?

My grandmother was born in 1899 and died in 1995. In the course of her lifetime, the Wright Brothers first flew, indoor plumbing and home electrification became common, the Ford Model T debuted, the first jet engine was developed, man landed on the moon and the computer age had begun. I thought that no generation would see the kinds of changes that she witnessed. But I may be wrong. The average child born today in the United State will live to the year 2094. How different will that world be? And, importantly, what role will these children take in creating the world that they want to live in?

Nobel laureate Dennis Gabor once wrote that "the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented." The future is there to do with as you wish. Be true to yourself, be authentic, be open to the possibilities of your life's work as they reveal themselves, and in the words of Henry David Thoreau, you will "meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

This essay is drawn from Finding Purpose: Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling (2016) by Andrew J. Hoffman. Available from Greenleaf Publishing.

Andrew J. Hoffman is the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise and Education Director at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.