“People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Thomas Merton
Your ego and your calling in life can look surprisingly similar. Both pull you toward the realization of your desires. Both can completely consume your waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours with frenetic thoughts and sparks of brilliance. They can also manifest very similar outcomes--money, fame, and power. And they can both leave you feeling exhausted.
Ego is necessary and important because it does the work to assemble your personality. It manages your fragile identity while you figure out who you are. It protects you from the onslaught of societal expectations and motivates you to work hard and achieve great things.
But ego alone can also skew you toward thinking that hard work and achievement are the goals in life. If your ego is what assembles your personality and manages your identity, then your calling is invested in making sure it's authentic--who you really are--not just a persona you show the world.
Here are some ways to decipher which one is really driving your work.
Ego fears not having or doing something. Calling fears not expressing or being something.
The lifeblood of the ego is fear. Its primary function is to preserve your identity, but it fears your unworthiness. As a result, ego pushes you harder in order to achieve more. Ego communicates to you through "oughts," "musts," and "shoulds," persuading you to believe that by achieving more and more, you must be worthy, right?
A calling expresses itself quietly, through the expression of subtle clues throughout your life. It is unconcerned with you attaining or accomplishing anything. Its primary function is to be a conduit for expressing your true self to the world. What you DO with that expression is less important.
Ego needs anxiety to survive. Calling needs silence to survive.
Ego not only breeds on anxiety, it requires anxiety in order to decide which aspects of your personality will be dominant, and which ones will be dormant.
Wherever you feel the most insecurity is where your ego will work overtime to "fix." The ego needs anxiety to pinpoint the problem, then course corrects by disavowing this pesky aspect of your personality. Unfortunately, what the ego finds annoying or disruptive can also be your greatest gift to the world.
A calling, on the other hand, is discovered through observation and reflection, which is rarely found in a noisy environment. Listening to your life and discovering what it's asking of you is your calling and it requires more silence than most of us are comfortable with.
Ego manifests as burnout. Calling manifests as fulfillment.
My favorite definition of burnout is from Parker Palmer: burnout is not about giving too much of yourself, it's about trying to give what you do not possess.
Ego ends in burnout because it's consuming resources you don't have in order to push you toward a bigger, better version of yourself.
Because a calling is an expression of your true nature, it can only end in fulfillment. You know that feeling of deep satisfaction when you're doing something you absolutely love? That's an aspect of your calling showing itself to you.
Ego focuses on the result. Calling focuses on the process.
Because ego wants to manage anxiety by achieving more, it is especially concerned with the results of all this striving. By focusing on the outcome, your ego gets validation that all this work is worth it. Without a satisfactory result, all the striving is pointless.
A calling reveals itself through self-discovery. Your calling comes from within and can only be revealed by paying attention to how your life is unfolding. Instead of managing the outcome, your calling can handle the stress of ambiguity. It knows that the tension is revealing something that you couldn't otherwise learn.
Ego wants to preserve the self. Calling wants to impact others.
Ego is concerned with the self and preserving what it wants. The ego may be interested in helping others. But it isn't inherently motivated by serving others. It is motivated by maintaining and managing your identity.
A calling might begin with the expression of the self, but it moves toward the needs of others. Author Frederick Buechner says that your calling is "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."
While your ego does a necessary job of helping you function in the world, it is your calling that creates a more authentic, soulful way to be in the world.