Has anyone ever asked you what makes you come alive? I’ve been thinking lately about vocation. Many people are able to look back and see clues from their childhood pointing to their eventual profession. Sometimes it’s an easy connection to make. My sister, for example, was always getting in trouble for making a mural on her bedroom wall with crayons or taking Mom’s lipstick and “decorating” the bathroom. She went on to study art in college and is now a very talented graphic designer. For me, it wasn’t immediately apparent.
Early in my senior year of college, I was busily applying to grad programs when I heard a lecture on this idea. If we really reflect, the speaker said, we can all point to moments in our past that reveal our true passions and gifts. I was an English major, and yes–I had been geeking out over library books ever since I could remember. Writing was my best subject in school, sure, but I didn’t want to be a teacher. I had started as a psychology major freshman year, but I missed English so much that I tested out of Major British Writers I in order to take Major British Writers II, which covered my favorite era of literature at the time. Here’s the kicker—I didn’t need either class for my psychology degree. I wanted to take it as an elective…I know.
Not long after this, I found myself sitting in Physiological Psychology memorizing the cranial nerves, and I came to a decision. Psychology was not for me. University policy was to meet with the head of the department you were considering, and it was in this meeting with the wonderful and wise chair of the English department that I first heard about social work. She was an impressive person but managed to put me at ease as she told me that social work involved a lot of writing and research, and graduate programs offered different concentrations. I could choose not to go down the clinical path, which was the part of psychology I didn’t really appreciate. An English degree would be a great foundation for a Masters in social work, she said.
So, I majored in English and loved almost every minute of it. I minored in psychology and started learning more about social work. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. This was the perfect academic path for me—a different means to the same end. I initially chose psychology because I wanted to help people. I’d always been told I was a good listener. I hadn’t thought to trace my interest back to childhood until this lecture my senior year of college. And when I considered the idea of vocation, it wasn’t clear to me exactly how I’d gotten here—applying to social work programs. It felt right, but when did this become my calling?
It hit me weeks later, cleaning out my closet. At the bottom of a pile of t-shirts, I found one that I had kept since 8th grade. They didn’t have anything but a size large, and I remember rolling up the sleeves when I wore it that year. The guidance counselor at my junior high had a program called “peer mediation”. Junior high kids have a lot of hormones and some get into a lot of fights. When this happened at school, the culprits could choose to meet with the vice principal or participate in peer mediation. I was chosen to be a peer mediator, along with several other students. There was an even number of boys and girls, and we were a mix of nerds and cool kids who made decent grades. I think by now you know which side I fell on. We were trained in conflict resolution and given a notebook of prompts to use in mediations. I loved it. I didn’t love much in junior high. It’s not a great time for most of us, I guess. But peer mediation was something I looked forward to, and not only because they paired me with the tallest boy as my co-mediator. I was able to talk calmly with students in a crisis of sorts and listen empathetically as each explained their side of the conflict. Then we collaborated to come up with a solution that would result in them avoiding detention and, hopefully, preventing future fights. I felt empowered and natural in this role. It energized me. It made me come alive.
This must be why I still had this shirt, though I never thought about it before. I can’t explain why it gave me so much satisfaction to make the connection between my middle school peer mediator career and my choice of graduate degree, but it was truly meaningful for me to remember where the spark started. Now, as a stay-at-home mom in my early thirties, I still rock my peer mediation shirt at the park now and then. I think most of us have more than one thing that makes us come alive, and this is just one of mine. I’m not working in social work right now, but you better believe I use those skills with my toddler. And here I am writing, practicing another one of my passions.
I want to encourage you to reflect back. Think about a what you’ve loved doing over the years. What are some things you have always been willing to work hard at because they bring you joy? Have you ever traced that path? You might be using your gifts in an unconventional way, but if you look closely, I hope you’ll see it.