“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive” – Howard Thurman
For two years, I helped plan a retreat at my university that empowered students to explore their vocation – the special gifts and talents we have all been given and how they fit into this wide and swimming organism of a world.
We focused on the four questions, with speeches and activities corresponding to each:
“What brings me joy?” “What am I good at?” “Where does love fit in?” and “What does the world need me to do?”
These are tremendously profound questions to journal on, meditate on, stick on our mirrors and ponder while we brush our teeth. I’m becoming devastatingly familiar with how much these questions mean to me as I navigate my first year post-college and try to understand what my yearnings are and where they beckon me to follow.
That being said, the description that went along with one of the questions made me scrunch up my eyebrows in disagreement. Every time we talked about “What does the world need me to do?” participants told the same story as an example of this precept in action. I tried to find a source for this story, and for how many people repeated it I’m sure it came from somewhere, but I haven’t had any luck yet. The story goes a little something like this:
You could find great joy in being a shepherd, herding sheep could make you incredibly happy, and you could be really good at it. You could love it with a passion springing from somewhere deep and graceful in your bones, and your shepherding of sheep would satisfy those first three questions of vocation. But it’s the 21st century, and the world does not need shepherds. So shepherding would not fit the definition of vocation, and you should find something else more suited to the urgent needs of the world.
So if you love shepherding, you had better pick some other calling because you sure aren’t helping the modern world much when you hang out with sheep on a hill somewhere.
I hope this story helped someone grow in their personal development, and I hope it focused someone’s clarity, and I hope it inspired someone. But this story just didn’t work for me.
I believe that when we start thinking this way, we poison ourselves with Dream Guilt. We start weeding out our dreams and telling ourselves tame reasons why we shouldn’t go after them, and if we keep at it, we may look back on our lives one day drenched with regret and crippling unhappiness.
What if Angelina Jolie had said in the 1990s, “Well, the world doesn’t need one more actress, so never mind. I’ll go get a nice little job in business or something.” She certainly would have been right by conventional thinking – actresses come and go, fame flickers, someone else would have starred in her roles. But would the world be the same? Would her humanitarian impact still resonate around the globe? Or is it possible that the world needs people who are willing to crack themselves open and follow their hearts and talents – no matter how shadowy the trail, and no matter how many naysayers tell them their work is frivolous and unnecessary.
Our self-doubt, our fear, and our ego will already give us bountiful reasons why we shouldn’t follow our dreams. Our inner voice clamors somewhere in our chest, but we already struggle to hear its dampered sound through the gnawing trivialities of the day-to-day.
Add those self-sabotaging tendencies to Society’s spindly finger pointing at us to stay in line, and mix in some well-meaning-yet-fear-laden advice from our family and friends… there is a recipe brewing for us to stay meek and conforming and quiet. Surely we don’t need to add one more layer to the mix by scolding ourselves that the world doesn’t need our gifts and callings.
The world needs us to do the things that light our hearts on fire. No more, no less. Your burning desires have been nestled in your heart for a reason, and you owe it to yourself to follow their nudges wherever they lead. Your path will change. Your heart will grow. Your spirit will soar. Your opportunities will open up. Your smile will radiate so blindingly that your bathroom mirror will barely recognize you.
Of course a sense of social justice should be integral in our actions. And of course we should never stop helping, never stop learning, never stop immersing ourselves in heartbreaking understanding of the world’s problems. But the world needs us most when we are fully committed to our life and our passions – not when we go through the motions of something we don’t want to do because we think it’s what the world needs most, yearning after another path the whole time.
The world needs so many things that we can’t always see how our individual callings fit into the whole, but let’s muster up the faith that they do. In a grand cosmic twist, I recently found out that O’Hare Airport has decided to use sheep and goats to graze on the overgrowth. And do you know what position they are hiring for?
You guessed it: a shepherd. As it turns out, if your joy and calling – and, yes, your vocation – is to be a shepherd, the 21st century needs you after all.
Love & Wool Blankets & Happy Endings,
(Do you wildly disagree with me? Have you ever guilted yourself out of your heart’s longing? Share your wisdom in the comments section!)