What does it mean, exactly, to have a professional calling? When does it develop? How does it evolve as we live and grow? As these personal accounts show, a rewarding professional journey is rarely straightforward and easy. But if you can hold on tight, it’s worth it.
1) Realizing a Dream
As an only child raised by a single mother, I didn’t have many positive male role models growing up who could teach me how to be a man, a husband, or a father. Nor were there a lot of intact marriages in my community that exemplified what a healthy, committed relationship looked like. And yet, I knew from an early age that I wanted to do whatever it took to find and maintain my own healthy marriage, one worth having and emulating.
As I grew older, I unofficially studied every example of a positive relationship I could find. You can imagine my happy surprise when I discovered there was an entire field of marriage and family therapy. I remember saying to myself, “You mean I can make a living helping other people do what I wanted to learn about anyways? Where do I sign?”
A school counselor once told me that you know a career is for you when you’d do it for free if your other needs were met. Once I started my training, I became even more certain that I’d found that career. Today, I’m not only living my goal of being an LMFT focused on strengthening couple and family relationships, but I’m happily married to my college sweetheart, who’s also an LMFT. We’ve been going strong for 22 years.
Lambers Fisher, LMFT
St. Paul, MN
2) An Epiphany, as the Music Swelled
By the time I was 12, I’d decided that I was going to be a physician. Inspired by my grandfather’s lifetime of service as a family doctor in the hills of eastern Kentucky, I originally planned to be a missionary doctor, so my practice could address more than just my patients’ bodies. But when I fell for my wife-to-be during my junior year abroad in France, I knew I couldn’t spend those long years of medical training away from her. I needed a different professional path.
So I began what became an illuminating, three-year adventure, during which I considered possible new directions for my life. We moved to Maine, making a living working on the Appalachian Trail, cleaning rooms in bed and breakfasts, bussing tables, and taking on shifts at a daycare center and a summer camp. All the while I read fervently, and eventually stumbled upon the work of Carl Rogers, Kay Redfield Jamison, and Carl Jung. Their writing on healing inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and become a therapist.
Not long into my program, I grew interested in the brain and opted for specialized training in CBT that culminated in a PhD. For a while, I was an academic psychologist, spending most of my time doing research and only providing therapy a couple hours a day. My plan was to stay in academia and develop my own line of research, focused on trauma’s effects on the brain.
Then one night, at a classical music concert, I had an epiphany. It struck me that all the beauty I’d found in my professional work had come through the hours I’d spent with people who were hurting and finding a way to heal. I decided right then, as the music swelled, that I’d transition to the rich, meaningful life of a full-time clinician.
Seth Gillihan, PhD
3) Getting Present-Focused
When I was 16, a friend invited me to join her at a local social service agency to write a peer-advice column. I loved the work, and it’s where I met a therapist for the first time. She was our advisor, and thoroughly impressed me. I’d also become a peer counselor that year in high school. I found myself comfortable in each of these helper roles and wanted to learn more.
When I got to college, there was no social work major, so I chose to study anthropology. A greater understanding of why we humans are who we are was fascinating to me. Plus, I loved archaeology and was a big Indiana Jones fan. The summer after my junior year, I went on an archaeological dig, believing that I was committing to a future spent looking into the past.
But after months spent digging in the same 20-by-20-foot square of dirt in the hot sun, only to turn up one mini juglet and a single copper earring—which, to be fair, did date back 3,000 years—I quit. How could I devote myself to a career focused on the past when what I really wanted to do was participate in people’s current lives?
A year later, I started an MSW program. Helping people in the real world who were fighting hard to survive was an engaging, powerful contrast to the dusty study of the ancient past that I’d left behind. I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for.
I’ve always felt a strong connection to those eye-opening teen years when I first learned about therapy. Now, in my practice, I strive to encourage adolescent clients to find their own unique voices. After 23 years as a social worker, I still love what I do, and find myself touched daily by my clients, my colleagues, and the many wonderful helpers in our world.
Jennifer Udler, LCSW-C
Photo © iStock/Oko_SwanOmurphy