Book Notes:

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“Is the life you are living the same as the life that wants to live in you?”

This is the central theme explored by writer, educator and activist Parker Palmer in his 2000 book, Let Your Life Speak. In it, Palmer demystifies the process of finding ‘your calling’ through the lens of his own life story.

Keep reading for the highlights from Palmer’s short and worthy book, and my top 5 takeaways for today’s professionals.

The problem:

Palmer insists that “We have a habit of listening to guidance from everywhere except from within,” and “wearing other people’s faces.” Sadly, living in accordance with others’ values rather than our own results in an inauthentic -- and likely unfulfilling and psychologically costly -- life.

The solution:

Palmer urges that “if we can learn to read our own responses to our experience...we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.”

How do we do this?

Palmer shares his own life story as one example. He lets us into his discomfort, darkness, successes and failures, ultimately making that path easier and less daunting for us to walk. Palmer shows us how to:

  • Stop chasing after what we ought to be or do: “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the happiness that every human being seeks -- we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

  • Identify our natural gifts and interests: This requires asking the people who know us best to reveal what our gifts are, and looking back at our childhood and career experiences to assess the experiences that ignited passion and interest inside of us.

  • Recognize our limitations: This requires looking at the experiences where we have failed, struggled, or felt ill at ease — and coming to terms with the environments and types of work that do not align with our inner voice. While possible with hard work, attempting to stretch beyond our limits incurs a cost. Palmer succeeded at becoming a prestigious scholar, but was miserable in the role. Rather than working harder to ‘make it work’, Palmer shifted towards a path that aligned with his values, gifts, and genuine interests.

  • See ‘calling’ as a direction, not a job title: Palmer details how we are drawn towards the types of environments and work that align with our natural gifts and interests, and how we are similarly pushed away from those that don’t align. Your calling isn’t one specific job you were meant to do, but rather the experience of living in alignment.

  • Lean into endings as new beginnings: I love Palmer’s phrase, “when way closes, way will open.” He tells us that “we must take the no of the way that closes and find the guidance it has to offer -- and take the yes of the way that opens and respond with the yes” of our actions.

  • Practice self-care: Palmer emphasizes that “self-care is never a selfish act,” and that if we don’t support ourselves, we cannot serve others.

  • Move through darkness to get to the light: Palmer shares bravely and explicitly how he had to endure the misery of wrong-fit career experiences and depression -- multiple times -- in order to find his way.

  • Embrace that this journey takes time: We must live through multiple life and vocational experiences, each offering up new clues, insights, and “ways open” in order to figure out what authentic vocation is for us.

All of these practices and learnings can feel illusive when you read them. That said, this is exactly why Palmer’s book is so powerful and instructive. Palmer shares all of these insights through the lens of his own winding career path — from moving up the traditional ladder of success in academia and landing a tenure-track position at Georgetown, to quitting academia and joining a commune in Pennsylvania, to moving through depression and finding his stride as a teacher, writer, and social activist. Palmer acts as a living role model for those of us seeking fulfillment, which is why I still recommend reading the 100p book in full.

My Top 5 Takeaways for PROFESSIONALS:

As a career coach, here are the most important lessons from Let Your Life Speak that I think today’s professionals should keep top of mind:

  1. Ask yourself honestly, “Is the life you are living the same as the life that wants to live in you?” Try this 5-year vision exercise, and ask yourself which of the images, expectations or goals from that vision fall into the “ought” category vs. the category of what you deeply, truly want. Conducting an ‘authenticity assessment’ can help reveal whether you’re moving towards or away from your calling.

  2. Get in touch with what drives you. I have an entire program dedicated to helping professionals assess and pursue their right-fit career paths, but a good place to start is by taking stock of your values and, as Palmer calls them, your gifts, interests, and limitations. Only once you have an honest picture of your full self can you define your authentic career path.

  3. Recognize that being rejected or fired does not mean YOU are a failure. Rejection feels awful. For all of us. And sometimes the answer is that we need to work harder or differently. But often it is our inner voice guiding us away from the wrong kinds of opportunities. Mourn the loss. Then try to reframe rejection as a lesson rather than a condemnation, and move forward in the right direction.

  4. Embrace that “when way closes, way opens.” Every closing door, rejection, or dead end can feel demoralizing. But as much as you can, trust that if you continue showing up and doing the work, your break will come. The right opportunity will materialize in good time. Light is always on the other side of darkness.

  5. Seek out role models and ask to hear their stories. Parker Palmer is just one inspiring role model for this journey. Find other people who love their jobs, or who have the job that you want. Ask them (here’s a helpful guide!) how they got there, what experiences taught them the most, and what their day-to-day entails. When you connect with others, you will feel your isolation, doubt and confusion start to lift -- and see yourself filled with new ideas, insights and passion to find your authentic way forward.

What about let your life speak resonates with you?

Which piece of Palmer’s guidance do you feel most drawn to?

Or what experiences from your life or career have helped you steer towards authenticity and fulfillment?

I’m curious and would love to hear your thoughts or stories in the comments!

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