The Inciting Incident in Your Quest for Calling

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The Inciting Incident in You Quest for Calling

Change sucks.

“It was fun to have the majority of my life completely up in the air,” said no one ever.

Change can do a lot things. Change can make life better. Change can fix big problems. Change can get you more money, more time, more meaning, more impact. And change can leave you with less of those things.

But no matter what, change is painful.

Why? Because even the most adventurous of us like to feel comfortable sometimes. We like stability and consistency in many parts of life.

The hard truth is that finding purpose, passion, and calling requires a great deal of change.

As a result, few enter fully into the quest for meaning without some outside force initiating it. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just how it is.

All Great Stories Start Somewhere

In story form, all great stories have an inciting incident. It’s that thing that jumpstarts the story and interrupts the main character’s life as usual. A good inciting incident moves a story forward and points directly to the climax and resolution.

The reason we love when stories that have these kinds of moments is that we relate to them. We’ve all had some version of normal and everyday life, and then had it interrupted and ripped away by something outside of our control. We’ve all been pushed from places of comfort and simplicity into struggle and complexity. We know what it’s like, so inciting incidents speak truth to us about ourselves and about our lives.

As I’ve worked with clients, there’s always a reason that they’ve sought me out. Something has happened (or hasn’t happened) that has disrupted their vision for themselves and their work.

No one signs up to do deep soul searching work without a reason. It’s too challenging.

If the choice is between Netflix and hard work, there has to be a reason to choose the work.

Though the specifics vary greatly from one person to the next, I wanted to explore the common events in life that propel us into conversations about calling, life direction, passion and purpose.

My guess is that something on this list will resonate with you. Likely you’ve been through a number of these experiences, but one or two in particular has challenged you to ask questions about your identity and life’s work. I’d like to know which ones.

Inciting Incidents in Your Search for Purpose

End of High School

This is the first for many of us. We see it coming for years as people ask us what we want to do when we grow up. We prepare for it by trying to decide what college or university we’d like to go to or what job we’d like to pursue.

For the first time in many of our lives, we’re asked to make big decisions about what’s next. By this time many have been on a very linear educational path since 5 or 6 years of age. This is the first time that single track splits into many separate directions.

End of College and/or Grad School

This is the end of your institutional education. It feels like you’re getting dumped on the side of the road for some. Suddenly there is no structure, no plan, no direction, no GPA to be measured by, and no diploma or awards to achieve. It’s just you and the rest of life. What will you do with it?

You face so many questions: what job can I get? What job do I want? Will anyone hire me? Where will I live? Who will I live with? Etc.

Suddenly you’re forced to make choices about your work and life that you may not feel prepared to make.

Early Career Itch (or Quarter Life Crisis)

At any point in the first 15 years into a career, many people experience a disillusionment. “It didn’t work out the way I anticipated.” Is often how we articulate it.

Maybe you got a job doing that thing that you always wanted to do, and now you realize that it’s not a good fit for you. Or maybe you’ve tried a few things and just feel stuck and unsure what to try next.

This is one of the most common inciting incidents that initiate our quest for calling.

Mid Career Itch (or Mid Life Crisis)

For some this may look like a mid life crisis, while for others it’s more subtle. It happens when you’ve been doing your work for close to 20 years. You’ve reached a level of professionalism where you feel comfortable, and you have a growing sense that you have more to give. Your job might be great, but you’re not starting or ending your day feeling very engaged. You think back to your younger self and wonder what she or he would think if they knew where you’d end up.

You look forward to your remaining years in the work force and realize that you don’t want to keep doing this for another 10+ years.

You long for more meaning and significance.

Empty Nest

When the kids are out of the house, there’s a new space that opens in our lives. You’ve given a lot of time, attention, and effort to your kids over the past 18+ years, and now they don’t need as much as they once did.

This is a particularly poignant phase of life if you are the primary caretaker. Maybe you haven’t worked full time in years. Maybe not at all. Suddenly your primary source of meaning and purpose is shifting away from you. You’re forced to wrestle with the loss of your role in the lives of your kids, and also an increase in time and freedom.

What will you do with your time now? Where will you find purpose?

Retirement

When we reach a point where retirement is an option, we find ourselves asking how will we use our time? Many people find more purpose from their jobs than they realize and really struggle with feeling purposeless and not needed after retiring.

What will you do with yourself now that you have time to do whatever you want? What do you want? What will bring meaning?

Some people choose to give their time to causes that they care about, volunteering more and doing development. Others seek to learn new skills and grow personally.

Major Health Change

Injury, cancer, paralysis, or other health changes can suddenly change our perspective on ourselves and our lives. Confronted both with the fragility of life and our own limitations, we are propelled into asking deep questions about what is worth our time and what legacy do we want to leave.

Personal Life Crisis

Similarly, personal life crisis force us to confront ourselves in a new way. These come in many shapes and sizes:
Death of a loved one. Divorce. Natural disaster. Car accident. Robbery. Near death experience. Etc.

Forced Job Change

Last but not least, a forced job change is another common inciting incident. Whether you get fired, your company collapses, you take a forced early retirement, or some other iteration, your previously clear vision of what your next 3+ years were going to be is suddenly stripped from you. You’re left bare and wondering what you will do, and what you want to do.

Which Describe You?

Calling is a journey of identity formation. It’s a process that we typically revisit multiple times throughout our lives. If you’ve made it this far in this article, I’m curious what you’re finding resonates with you. Which of these pushed you to ask questions about who you are and what your work in the world is?

I’d love to hear from you. Share your experience in the comments.

PS- I currently have openings for one-on-one sessions. Click here and fill out the form to get started!

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 10 Comments On This Post.

  1. Carol

    Mid life crisis and forced job change. I resigned from a job that I had worked in for six years and I could think of was what next, I need another job. I never really took time to think about things and a month later I got into another job that still made me want to resign!
    I can’t say I have it all figured out because part of me believes I can do more (I am yet to discover what more is) but I am hanging in there. I prayed consistently and things like fear, self-doubt and undermining myself disappeared.
    So here is where I am.

    • dan

      Thanks Carol! It’s good to hear how you’ve experienced some of these transitions

  2. My life’s major inciting incident was an intersection — a health crisis that was tied to the end of a marriage which was shortly followed by career path dissatisfaction. All of which raised serious questions about identity and meaning-making actions. It was hard, but so full of good questioning and deep engagement, and the transformation process was worth all the pain (and probably couldn’t have happened any other way). Stephen Colbert says it best, “I love the thing I most wish had not happened to me.”

    This post is a good reminder that there will be more inciting incidents while also reminding me that I’ve survived them before, and am better because of them.

    • Wow, Kate. That sounds super intense. It’s so true though, that sometimes the hardest and darkest parts of the journey are the ones that matter the most.

  3. my sister going through a life altering brain surgery at the age of 8. she would restart her life all over and have residdule issues to deal with that would leave her with many special needs, but yet she still has the ability to love and live more fully than anybody I have ever met. she has naturally been able to embody what it means to be the beloved child, which was detramental in guiding me through the process of losing my vision 8 years later. now I am writing about the journey of how she helped me restore my vision… to the beloved child. these are good important questions for us to think through, thanks for bringing them up for us to read and sort through

    • Hey Matt! It sounds like you’ve been on quite a journey! Wow. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Martina

    May be I’m in my quarter life crisis. I started my own business in my early 20s and it runs well and I reached my goal after 10 years. But, I think I have sacrificed too much in my life for my business, and I thought it was worthy, until now I think I was wrong. I can’t see my future in it again, then I decided to quit from my business now. I leaved everything that I had begun, and try to find my life again from the beginning.
    There is one big question in my head right now is, Where I should begin my life now?

    • Wow. Big questions, Martina. I can’t answer them for you, but I can tell you this: stay in them. Keep pushing. You’ll find your way. And let me know how I can help!

    • Gina Semensi

      Hey Martina,
      I just graduated college, I am in my 20s, and I just launched my own company. Things are progressing, slower and with much more time/ energy/ resources than I was anticipating. I am beginning to feel like I am giving up too much of my life and happiness. This post is helping me realize that I may need to make a change in my life/ career that allows me to be happy and not regret devoting all of me to this business’ success. I hope you have found some clarity in your own life and I wish you the best!

      • Martina

        Hello Gina,
        Thank you for your comment. It’s nice to hear that my story can touch some one out there and makes them realized that running a success business doesn’t have to sacrifice our happiness in this world. Maybe I was a hypocrite, I thought if I could be a success woman then I gonna be happy in my life, but I was wrong; it didn’t work like that. Now, I am starting over my life, I will build my dream life from the beginning. There is nothing too late for starting new life, as long as I know where my ship is heading for now. Thank you again for your wish and I wish the best for you too! I hope we both can find our happiness as well as our success in this world.

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