Discerning Livelihood: How Do You Know What Work is Yours?

Discerning Livelihood: How Do You Know What Work is Yours?

The black an white icon for "livelihood" is a bowl with a wheat sheaf standing in it and a bag of money behind them.

Discerning livelihood is less of a challenge guided by our few basic principles to stand you in good stead your whole lifetime of livelihoods. This wonderful livelihood icon is offered by the open-source icon-creating community at the Noun Project. What a find!

Discerning Livelihood

How does one decide on which livelihood work to sustain oneself?* Especially earlier on, when one’s more unique gifts may not be developed yet–and/or one may not fully understand one’s “niche” yet. And within given situational constraints (in my case, student debt, and wanting to work for a non-profit organization).

I anticipate livelihood is something that will change over the course of your life. Mine certainly has, and at age 57, this continues. As I anticipate living to 150, it is important to anticipate change. In this post, I provide a few basic principles that I intend to be “one size fits all” useful throughout your life, by culling wisdom from my life experience, economic research, and others’ life experience. Let me know in the comments to this post if I’ve met my aim.

1. Discerning vs. Deciding

First of all, notice that I’ve replaced the questioner’s term “deciding” with “discerning.” Discerning is an ongoing process you get better and better at. Deciding is a bit scarier. I shy away from it! One of my favorite quotes about this is from the historian Natalie Zemon Davis on how she decides what “really” happened:

I see complexities and ambivalences everywhere…am willing to settle, until I can get something better, for conjectural knowledge and possible truth…make ethical judgements as an assay of pros and cons, of daily living and heroic idealism. [My intellectual opponent] sees things in clean, simple lines; he wants absolute truth, established with no ambiguity by literal and explicit words; he makes moral judgements in terms of sharp rights and wrongs.**

We are right to be in a process of discernment throughout our lives, especially when it comes to something as all-important as how we will spend the bulk of our waking hours, our contribution to the planet, and our utmost happiness–all of which can be understood as “livelihood.”  We are less well served by “sharp rights and wrongs.”

So think of figuring out your livelihood as a process.

2. Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese***

The questioner assumes that his (young) age might change the game of figuring out his livelihoood. Not so. Unless you say so. If you think in linear terms about your age, you box yourself into the categories of your own creating. That’s fine; just realize they are yours, not Life’s. I haven’t noticed Life caring about what age we are. Especially nowadays, when really famous, accomplished people do amazing things not just in their 40s, not just in their 30s or 20s–but in their teens. There are some wise children being born.

Likewise, I am seeing fabulous examples of people doing all kinds of interesting things as they near (and pass) “retirement” age. And you can bet I am looking for them! Nowadays, older people are finding funding to go back to school and starting 2nd and 3rd careers, or donating their lives to livelihood rather than a “straight” job when they were able to retire. This means they are taking on student debt, and wanting to work for non-profits, just like our questioner. (Lucy Kellaway is my favorite recent example.)

So think of figuring out your livelihood as something that ends when you die!

3. Niche + Gifts Still = Choices

The questioner wonders if, being youthful, the process is harder because “one’s more unique gifts may not be developed yet–and/or one may not fully understand one’s ‘niche’ yet.” I think of gifts as paints in a paintbox. Hopefully, as you get older, your palette gets more and more colorful. We know more, we become more useful to even more good things happening.

So true, when you are young, you have not developed all your gifts. If you view livelihood as a process, you anticipate knowing more and more about yourself. And you may throw yourself into more and more challenging situations. I hope you do! I try to live continually at my edge of growth, while utilizing the skills I came in with and develop as I grow.

The questioner continues:

I was intrigued by the part of your interview with Kimberly where you talked about returning to organizing projects, and how earlier on, as you said it: “in my heart I couldn’t figure out what was the most important thing.” Perhaps you’ve gleaned some wisdom over the years on that discernment task.

This refers to my 20s when I was beset by trying to figure out which cause was most important or most urgent. (We tend to confuse important and urgent, but that’s another blog post.) I was a social-justice organizer who finally chose to become a fulltime grassroots fundraising consultant because it allowed me to work on many different causes at the same time.

The wisdom I’ve gained is that my livelihood choices tend to revolve around a combination of the momentary, the cosmic, and the personal.

See Yourself at the Confluence of the Cosmic, the Personal and What’s Between

  • The momentary: I see and seize the moment. I’m strategic in how I use my gifts. What is going on right now? That has huge impact on what I turn my talents to next.
  • The cosmic: it matters to me that I think my work is meaningful at a cosmic level. (Everything matters. Don’t try to tell me it doesn’t; that’s just a given for me.)
  • The personal: my happiness matters. I do a much better job at things I enjoy.

Don’t let niche or gifts make your choices! See yourself at the three-way intersection of the personal, the cosmic, and what lies in between. Choose! even if it seems impractical. Don’t fight, don’t resist what is, but don’t cave in to the merely practical, as what is considered practical will change before your very eyes. (On this, you can trust my aged wisdom!)


*Today’s question is from a new subscriber who took us up on our offer of a free half-hour of coaching for each question we deem worthy of answering in a blog post! This half-hour can be yours if you, like our alert reader, send us a useful question. Note that the decision about its usefulness is strictly subjective and up to us!

**I found her wonderful essay, “On the Lame,” here on 1/16/18.

***A bumpersticker whose brilliance I cannot claim, only quote.

7 Comments
  • chris
    Posted at 01:50h, 19 January Reply

    Well! I want to say YES to that. Or amen! maybe. And how satisfying to have played a role in this post. 🙂 Still better to feel the unabashed challenges in the response, thank you.

    A timely reminder, for me, about non-linear view of life stages. Fun to learn about Lucy Kellaway, how cool. Mildred Norman/Peace Pilgrim also pops to mind (apparently she got to the point where she didn’t consciously know her age count). ALSO, teasing apart discernment and deciding rang as a lovely and helpful distinction (discernment? ;)). Deciding is harder for me! What a discovery. And momentary, cosmic, personal–reminds me of something you spoke about before that stuck: dance between what you want and what the universe is offering you. Whoo! enlivening to experience the flow of this post.

  • Cathy Ransom
    Posted at 04:09h, 19 January Reply

    Oh, what wisdom you have condensed into this brief essay! I will have my daughter read it. She is only 13, but struggles with the burden of “deciding” already. I may print it out and post it near my desk to remind me that it isn’t too late to discern differently. Having spent last year “trying on” acting, I have fallen into bookkeeping for the theatre group to provide some regular income. But bookkeeping is neither my strength nor my passion. It is something I do (and do fairly well) because somebody’s got to do it. While the acting has it’s up sides, the downsides are precipitous. I think I might spend this year trying the writing option. Discerning is, as Natalie Zemon Davis suggests, a spiraling down (or up?); a narrowing in. Perhaps never a, “Eureka! moment, but instead a, “I think I’m onto something here.” I ask myself, “where do I feel the most passion? Fire in the belly?” Those moments are, for me, in creating. When the muse hands me a morsel so tasty, I do get an “Aha!” That “aha!” might come in the form of 3-dimensions; a new color combination on my globes, as strange as that might sound to some. Or, it may come as a line to a song or story. Soooo, if that is where the passion is, why aren’t I doing more of that? I write this as much for myself (or even more so) as for you. But you are today’s muse so thank you! Brava!

  • Beth
    Posted at 17:01h, 22 January Reply

    Love this post. I’ve come back to read in three times (so far). I’ve spent a long time developing a set of skills that are useful to social movements, and have found work that offers a livelihood in exchange, and how fortunate am I!! And also still struggle sometimes because #3: Niche + Gifts Still = Choices. Not just choices within my niche but in how to incorporate more explicitly the paints in the palette that are my spiritual growth, which don’t immediately/obviously relate to the substance of my work. The question I’ve been asking myself is how does my own path to liberation allow me to help others get free?

    Thank you BR.

    • Beth
      Posted at 22:14h, 23 January Reply

      Heavens, thank you, BG. I love that question and it may develop in me into a blog post. For it to do that, I’d love to ask you to write more about it. Would you, in a comment, add anything you’ve come to about that question?
      BR

      • Beth
        Posted at 15:53h, 25 January Reply

        Well, maybe first we have to talk about what liberation is… paraphrasing Assata Shakur, it can be easier to know what freedom _isn’t_ than what it is. But let’s assume for now that one dimension of freedom is that we are not bound by self-doubt. For me (and so many others!), it has been/is a long road to untangle from self-doubt, so I’m trying to practice “showing my work”–being very open with and about my own process, and listening really carefully when other people are confiding in me to see where self-doubt is meddling. Bonus is that both of these things help me be clearer with myself, as teaching something always demands. And I think this relates to discerning one’s livelihood in that it’s a way to practice discernment, maybe in lower stakes ways.

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