How Ralph Waldo Emerson Helped Me Understand My Calling

My mom was an English teacher and always gave me a great love for the classic poets. While her favorite was probably Robert Frost, I always gravitated to Ralph Waldo Emerson. His quotes and his deep thinking about life, impact, and influence definitely affected me as a high school student and as a husband, father, and leader today. When I think about my favorite Emerson quotes, it is hard to limit it to just one quote. Yet, there is one that comes to mind that has made the biggest impact on my life, especially when it comes to my calling in life.

Man writing in a journal

Throughout his life, Emerson mentored and encouraged other writers and poets including Henry David Thoreau. One of the essential questions that he often asked of his friends and mentees was:

What has become clear since we last met?

This simple yet insightful inquiry has always resonated with me because of the very nature of the response that it demands. This question forces you to be self aware – of yourself, your surroundings, your activity, and your opportunities. And the goal is a drive to clarity and action.

I have used this powerful question in my own life and with the people I coach, who have definitely heard me ask them on more than one occasion. It has helped me become clear about my calling and served as a catalyst for me to seize the moment as it relates to the opportunities in my life. Here are 3 things to consider when thinking about this question:

  • What – This part of the question forces you to think about the events of the past day, week, or month and consider the data points in your life. It is easy to go through life in a transactional and busy state aware that you are doing things but not being able to fully recall where the hours and days went and how you spent them. How often have you heard the statements: “I can’t believe it’s 5 pm?” “Where did the day go?” “Is this year already halfway over?” We must think earnestly about the moments in our lives and understand how we are investing our time in order to make the most of our moments.
  • Why – The word “clear” is the central theme and focus of Emerson’s question. Based on the data points that you have experienced in your past, what have you learned and what clarity have you drawn about yourself, your life, others, your impact, your talents and strengths, and your passions? We all desire clarity in our lives, and a fully present consideration of your life can help you draw this clarity. For me, this part of the question is a process. The clarity does not always come by asking the question the first time. There have been times in my life where I did not have a good answer about why I was going through a certain moment and, therefore, could not yet draw clarity about it. Over time, I was able to work through this process and become clear about the experiences in my life and how they were shaping my character and calling.
  • What’s Next – Careful observation leads to discernment and learning, which should result in purposeful action both now and in the future. The learning and insight you gain about the past reminds you to continue down a certain path or redirect your efforts toward a different outcome. It also helps to clarify your calling, which becomes an active state of living your purpose. The insight is not useful if it doesn’t get put into practice.

Clarity in 3D

Ralph Waldo Emerson posed this question to his friends was to get them to think about their life and their activity and make conscientious choices about how they invest their time. As you think about what happened yesterday, last week, and/or last month, ask this question on a regular basis both of yourself and others to help gain clarity of calling and your next step. It just might be one of the best questions you could ever consider.

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