Recently, I realized that an off-hand comment had a life-altering impact on my journey. More importantly, I realized the power spoken words have in the lives of those around us.
The Power of Spoken Word
Spoken words are powerful. A compliment, criticism, or even a passing comment from someone carries life-altering potential. When words enter our ears, or are processed by our brains, they can plant a seed in our minds that may forever change us–for better or worse. Sometimes those words leave trails of destruction in their wake, but other times the words spark a passion for blazing a trail. Here’s a story about my relationship with words and how a hallway conversation altered my course.
As I look back over the course of my journey–connecting the dots as Steve Jobs said in his infamous commencement speech—I realize that spoken words, more than “passion,” have altered the course of my life more than the all-too-popular muse of success “following our passion.” A “calling” is different. It isn’t conjured up from some ball of emotion and ambition; it is spoken into us. Let me tell you a little story about how a “calling” liberated me to take risks and forever change my journey.
My Story About Calling
Ambitious but aimless, I had clerked at a few law firms throughout law school. Law-firm life was not for me, or maybe the lawyers I clerked for would say, “I was not for it.” I had dabbled in real estate in undergrad, and I thought real estate law or construction law would be a good fit. One day my real estate transactions professor asked, “do you want to be Donald Trump or his lawyer?” Unfortunately, I knew I did not want to be his lawyer more than I didn’t want to be Trump, so I trotted down that path. After months of harassing Bob Talbott, a local real estate developer, he gave me a shot.
Bob prefaced the interview with, “I’m not sure why I’ve taken this interview. Who are you anyway?” I avoided the Donald Trump and his lawyer speech, and listed all of the reasons I would make a great developer, gab nauseum. He made some mention about how owning a “duplex” in college made no connection to real estate development and “the world is full of too many ‘pin-head’ lawyers” (Bob notwithstanding).
Just as I was about to be swiftly swept out of his office, I blurted out, “SO YOU’RE INTO TECHNOLOGY?” On the credenza behind him was a graveyard of the previous 24 months of discarded smartphones. This was 2005, so you can imagine the selection: Treo, Motorola Q, Kyocera, Blackberry.
He laughed and said, “Why no, what would make you say such a thing?”
“Your phones! At one time or another I’ve owned all of those smartphones, I could help you use technology in this business.” Hey, I was reaching, but I was genuinely curious to put my hands on a few of those beauts.
He glanced back at the credenza and smirked to me, “Why you’re a pinhead too!”
Needless to say, I got the job.
Pro-tip #27: Admitting, in any way, that you have capabilities with technology is the single dumbest thing you can admit in the workplace. Always claim ignorance. Even if it pains you, ask questions like, “How do you turn this thing on?” If a computer makes a noise, jump back and exclaim, “How did that happen?” Under no circumstances should you use phrases like “It’s not pulling an IP” or “Let’s power cycle it to see what that fixes.” Most importantly, never, ever say, “Here, I’ll take a look.” Those 5 words will tattoo “computer thingy fixer” on your head forever.
I eagerly took every task thrown my way. Because I was the “computer” guy, I implemented a new virtualized server system, Voice Over IP telephony system, managed the creation of custom software, created a new website, and fixed random audio issues—i.e. adjusting the volume on people’s speakers. See Pro-tip 27.
Eventually, however, I began working with Bob on a burgeoning residential department. Ideas flowed, execution followed, and before long I was plunged into the deep end of building a sales and marketing team from the ground floor. Bob gave me free reign to “figure out how to sell real estate using the internet.” He entrusted me to pour all my energy into figuring out every aspect of Google AdWords, Salesforce, setting up call centers, designing collateral—essentially building a marketing firm. Every day was an adventure because I had an overwhelming curiosity to grow my skills and become a leader in the space. Before I knew it, I had assembled a formidable sales & marketing shop.
Then everything ground to an abrupt stop when the law-school hourglass dropped its last grain. With the bar exam looming, it was my last day in the office before hunkering down and studying 14 hours a day for two weeks. On the way out the door, I passed Bob in the hallway, and he casually said, “Yapper, good luck, but I really don’t care whether you pass the bar. You’re going to be the best marketing and sales guy in the business.” Yes, yapper was my nickname, and no I’m not going to elaborate. I’m loquacious, what can I say?
I did pass the bar (thank God). I practiced law shortly thereafter on a few real estate cases with Bob, but my focus became exclusively on building a sales and marketing engine for high-end real estate. Eventually, housing tanked, and Bob helped me launch my own marketing consultancy. Finally, I picked up a few more clients, and again from the ground up, I built a marketing “agency.” Curious and invigorated by my inadvertant adventure, I continued down the path that Bob spoke into me. I have the highest respect for Bob as an entrepreneur, leader, and philanthropist, but I’m most thankful for taking the time to speak into me and plant a seed that is still bearing fruit.
Why did his words matter?
Between you and me, I was embarrassed and a bit aimless finishing law school when I realized that I didn’t necessarily want to practice law in the traditional sense. I won’t even discuss how that conversation went with my wife! Being a professional marketer had not even occurred to me. Building websites and “communicating” was more of a hobby than a profession. As an attorney, I felt beholden to the profession, but Bob spotted something in me that was more valuable (to him) than a “pinhead lawyer.”
Now that I look back on the experience I realize:
- His command liberated me to pursue something that I honestly really enjoyed.
- His words gave me the confidence to pursue a very different path without fear.
- I had the courage to tell my peers that I had taken an alternate path, and I LOVED it.
- His comment unleashed a passion in me that I did not see as a skill.
Without his spoken words, I didn’t believe that being a creative problem solver was valued. He saw something in me and had the courage to speak into me. As simple as it seems, most of us lack the courage, insight, or time to speak into others.
The Difference Between Passion, Calling, and Vocation
When people say I’m pursuing my “calling,” it doesn’t sit well with me. While the intention is clear, I think they are describing an inner voice—not a spoken word. Calling is not a warm-fuzzy feeling, an inherent belief about a vocation, or a belief about a passion, but all too often “calling” and “passion” are used interchangeably. The significant difference in the two words may lead to dramatically different results.
A quick search in the amazing Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the words “passion,” “calling,” and “vocation” are all imbued with deep, Judeo-Christian origins, but the words are different with regard to external and internal beginnings. Not to go all English major on you, but here are a few key definitions for each word from the OED:
Call n. 3(b). The summoning or inviting to a spiritual office or to the pastorate of a church. (dating back to 1300s)
Later in the 1600’s the term began taking on broader, more secular, application to vocation, duty, or “the strong impulse to any course of action as the right thing to do.” def. 9(a). Most importantly, calling was never an internal response. It originated from outside the person.
Vocation 6 a. To nominate by a personal ‘call’ or summons (to special service or office); esp. by Divine authority: ‘to inspire with ardours of piety; or to summon into the church’ (Johnson).
Then there’s the pop-culture phenomena passion:
Passion 9.a. An intense desire or enthusiasm for (also of) something; the zealous pursuit of an aim.
When I hear someone say, “It is my calling to do this,” I shudder. “What on earth makes you say that?” I want to scream. We may have passion for something, but that does not mean it is a calling. A “call” or a summons comes from outside; it is significant because it is spoken. It is not some mystery wrapped up in feelings and hopes. The “call” is transformative because it connects the inner passion to something in the external world, and it instills courage to defend that enthusiasm.
Whether we are competing in a marathon or fighting to keep a business alive, doubt is ever present. Just one person saying that you can win aligns our confidence with passion. The spoken word summoning that confidence is critical to success.
Typically, our parents “call” us into a profession or direction. Unfortunately, it is all-to-often motivated by money—not ability. The call is from parent to child is probably the most impactful, but sadly it doesn’t happen as much as it should. Hell, it should be with great pomp and circumstance to speak into a child whom parents know best, “You, my child, are specially chosen to serve others or heal the broken hearted.” Whatever the direction, those words are powerful.
A Conclusion and a Challenge
So, here’s the deal. Speaking words into someone is important. Although I did not know it at the time, Bob’s words forever altered my course. I came to this conclusion as I tried to understand the remarkable journey I’ve been afforded. The commencement speech Jobs gave resonated with me:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.
After you’ve walked down the path, you can look back and see how the passion connects, it’s descriptive. However, there are many influences in this journey. This means a couple of things:
- If you are looking for direction in your life, maybe you need to get outside of yourself, take some risks doing what you love, and listen to the words of those around you.
- If you are in a position to influence others (and you probably are), don’t be bashful about using your words wisely to speak into them.
- If you are a parent or mentor, you play the most important role in speaking into children. Speak truth, not motive, into them.
- If you lead people, you play a role in their life greater than just writing performance reviews. You have a duty to reach into them and call out their purpose–you may play an unexpected part in the grand journey of their life, and you may not even know your role, ever.
- If someone is not performing, there is a good chance that their purpose is not being unleashed with the task that has been given to them.
- If you wait for a great ceremony to call someone, it will likely never happen. Even a passing comment can make a huge difference.
- The greatest meaning you can provide into an employee’s life is speak into it. More than money, more than that paid vacation, more than any other benefits, giving them purpose in their daily work carries on into a lifetime.
- There is not a scarcity of encouragement that you can give to people.
I do not take this lightly—both in my own life and the life of others. Words are powerful. They can be encouraging as evidenced here, and they can be destructive. Everyone that I have the opportunity to influence is very near and dear to my heart. I don’t want to get anything out of them in this. Instead, I hope that there’s an opportunity to make some comment that unleashes them down a path of greatness.