For the past six years of my life, I was enveloped in what I’ve dubbed the “Career Crisis.” Over the course of this timeframe, what began as a struggle to find my calling morphed into a struggle to believe that God had a calling on my life. As I transitioned from one career trajectory to another, I felt like God was silent. I didn’t have a strong leaning toward any vocations I knew about, but I wanted to be obedient to the Lord with the career that I pursued. I was stuck – for six full years.
Yesterday, June 24, was supposed to be my first day of graduate school. I was supposed to show up for classes, armed with pastel-colored textbooks of British literature, probably a new black dress, and an eagerness to continue my search to figure out what God was calling me to do with my life. These things, though, would really mask my disappointment that I didn’t have any conviction about being there. Graduate school was the next thing on the journey to appear intellectual, and that was the only inkling I had.
And then, five weeks ago, God changed me. In an instant, my search for calling turned into a sense of purpose and direction. My next steps would not be arduous wanderings in the dark but faithful acts of learned obedience. I began to see that every step I’d taken in the past that felt random and fruitless was actually God directing me along a path that I could never have mapped myself. I realized that the struggle of my Career Crisis was just as much a struggle against trusting God as it was about finding the right profession.
I went from being a disappointed incoming graduate student to a hopeful fledgling entrepreneur in a single second – but the journey took me six years.
2013: The Salutatorian Speech Challenge
When I graduated high school, I exhorted my peers to find and follow their passions – the types of work that they truly loved – and to pursue them with excellence. I felt confident that I would be able to follow my own advice. I wanted to be a writer but there were plenty of other things I enjoyed: music, science, and anything concerning religion. And while I knew that I loved working with words, the idea of making a career as a professional wordsmith seemed too far-fetched. Surely something else would stick.
At college, I pretty soon found myself in the thick of decisions that I felt totally unprepared to make. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a doctor or a painter or a musician – much less if I could figure out the answer soon enough to graduate on time. Convinced that trial-and-error was the only way to get to whatever God’s plan was for me, I dove head-first into my college experience.
2014: The Concert Pianist Experiment
By the time I entered college, I had twelve years of classical piano training under my belt and because of the encouragement from my high school band direct and piano teacher, my first career dalliance was with becoming a professional pianist. Receiving a music scholarship confirmed I was on the right track. As a piano major, there were months when I consistently practiced five-six hours a day. I performed regularly for school and as a freelance musician. When my piano professor began to give my contact information to beginning piano students, I started my own private piano studio. By the looks of it, I was on the straight and narrow to becoming an accomplished musician.
And then, one day, I walked off stage after a competition and my professor congratulated me, saying it was the best he had ever heard me play. I knew it was – everything had gone exactly right – but deep within me, it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t articulate it. All of the practice for fifteen minutes of glory seemed like a small return on my investment. Even though I’d loved the strict discipline of playing the piano at the highest level, it felt self-indulgent to me, as if I’d gorged myself on music and only produced one nice movement of a concerto.
2015: The MD Experiment
That week I dropped my music major to a minor and, drawing upon my longstanding interest in science, officially declared myself a pre-medical student. I pursued it with the same ardor that I had with music: I signed up for a heavy class load and began to volunteer in an emergency room during the wild pre-dawn hours. I fainted when someone came in with a finger half cut off by a chainsaw and I literally spread the cheeks – yes, those cheeks – when someone came in with an anal abscess. At the same time, I got a second minor in chemistry because I was enticed by the prospect of a career in medical research.
And then, one day, an ambulance brought someone in whose body had been crushed by a large vehicle. His forearm, broken in two, dangled unnaturally over the gurney. With Herculean efforts, the doctors tried to bring him back to life. I heard the wails of his family members as they arrived. At the moment they pronounced him dead, it struck me that the fact of death, while painful and gut-wrenching, paled in comparison to questions about his spiritual state. Where was his soul? Did he know God? I decided that I couldn’t go into medicine because I’d feel like I was operating on the wrong plane.
2016: The Theologian Experiment
I decided divinity school would be the place for me. I took classes to read the New Testament in the original language and eventually got a third minor in Ancient Greek, became the president of a student apologetics organization, and began leading a small group Bible Study for college-aged girls. As graduation approached, I applied to the top divinity schools in the United States and England and somehow got accepted into all of them.
At the same time, though, I still wasn’t sold on attending any of them for some reason I couldn’t seem to articulate. Even though I knew that it was only an act of God that I’d even gotten into any of the schools, I felt uncertain and unconvinced that they were the place for me. I requested a non-binding deferment to one and after my college graduation moved to Athens, Greece.
2017: The Teacher Experiment
Before I’d sent out divinity school applications, I’d applied for a Fulbright grant to teach English in Greece. When I got the award, I cried for half an hour – it seemed like things were beginning to come together, and I was elated just as much about getting closer to my calling as I was about the grant itself.
Living in Greece was a phenomenal time, but as for clarity about my calling, it didn’t deliver. Teaching left me decidedly uncertain about pursuing it professionally. The idea made me shrug. I liked guiding students through literary analyses and helping them learn how to debate, but could live without it just as well. There were just as many wonderful moments as tiresome ones.
At the same time, I spent a lot of time traveling while I was abroad and after a particularly dreamy holiday in Italy found my bank account on life support. In an effort to revive my account, I signed up for an online freelancing website on a whim (I googled “freelancing opportunities” and blindly made an account on the first company that came up). I began taking a few writing jobs. Again, there were no inklings – it was just a way to eat more gyros without counting pennies.
When I returned home from Greece feeling lukewarm about both teaching and divinity school, I declined the offer I’d deferred and decided to live with my parents for a year.
2018: The Professor Experiment
After being home for a few weeks, I decided that I’d keep up my freelancing work and apply to graduate school for English. The programs were almost universally funded, and perhaps a few more years in school would be the next step in following my advice from five years before: to find and follow my passion.
The decision wasn’t random. I’d been an English major since day one in college (although various minors and second majors abounded at times). I’d enjoyed working on an undergraduate thesis on atheism in Ian McEwan’s fiction. At the same time, the thought of being a professor brought me the sort of demurred emotion that smile with closed lips indicates: tepid satisfaction. In truth, I really didn’t know what else to do. God had been quiet for five years, and while I longed for him to speak for me, I needed to move forward somehow.
I plunged myself into applications – over $1200 worth. I called old professors and wrote down their advice; I got recommendation letters and set about turning my 70-page thesis into a decent writing sample. I did everything I knew to do and as I worked, I felt like I had a purpose again. I was accepted into an MA program and waitlisted at a prestigious Ph.D. program that also invited me to their open house.
At the open house, I noticed a lot of concerning elements: professors making fun of the idea of God, a bizarre theme of insulting Christian missionaries, an ideologically homogenous environment that paraded its “freethinking,” an unkempt English building, and a disconcerting sly avoidance of their placement statistics (the percentage of their students who received tenure-track university positions). I ignored all the warning signs and decided that if they gave me the offer, I’d accept in a heartbeat. I wanted the prestige of the program and to be freed from the Career Crisis.
When I was denied, I had a peculiar feeling of relief that I couldn’t place. I accepted the MA offer and planned a trip to my new town to find an apartment, excited that things were moving, decisions being made, and that I was finally on a serious career track. I had long idolized the idea of being “educated,” and this was a step in that direction.
When I went to my new town to find a place, I was surprised and disappointed. The town was sleepy, the rent prices exorbitant, and the university didn’t strike me. My relief that I’d found a place vanished as I realized that in truth, I’d only be putting off making a decision about my career for two years – and then be in the same place that I was today. Suddenly, I saw that even going to school wouldn’t end the never-ending Career Crisis. Shockingly uncertain about anything I’d spent an entire year working towards, I left without signing a lease in utter despondency.
I wish that I could say that I was hopeful that God would restore me and give me hope, but six years of the same question tormenting me as my friends started careers and got married and went to medical school and bought homes had wrung me dry. I had nothing to pray or give. My past successes only turned into taunts about what could have been. I could have been a medical student. I could have been studying at a conservatory. I could have become an ESL teacher and live abroad. I could have been in divinity school at Harvard or Yale or the University of Oxford. And yet I was lost in my parents’ home.
2019: The Obedience Experiment
The day after I returned home was May 13. In the evening, I opened up this website, which had been dormant for a few months as I waded through the graduate school process. I felt something stir in me as I looked at the writing I’d put out for the others to see – it triggered a wave of excitement that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
The Lord brought to mind something I had begun to pray when it was down to two graduate schools: That I’d be excited about the MA program if the Ph.D. program didn’t accept me. I thought that God hadn’t answered – I didn’t get into the Ph.D. program and I wasn’t excited about the MA.
But now he had. I was excited about my website. Then, deep within me, something moved. My desire for external accolades, the prestige of getting a graduate degree, the belief that I was my career before I was a child of God all vanished in an instant. The thought of being “educated” and respected because of my academic pedigree suddenly meant absolutely nothing to me because I saw that those things said nothing of my value before God. I had that infinitesimal mustard seed of faith and Jesus moved a mountain in my heart. And once that was finally straight, I had clarity about my calling so strong that courage became an afterthought to obedience to what I knew God was calling me to do.
God made me a writer, and somehow, someway, that’s what I’ll do.
That night I slept better than I had in six years because I had confidence in God, who had never been silent. I had that precious peace that surpasses all understanding. The next morning, I sent a letter to the admissions department declining my acceptance.
Immediately, God began to move and encourage me that this was the right decision.
That same morning, I got an email from a mailing list I’d joined probably three years ago. It was advertising a class that teaches you how to make a living from your passion through entrepreneurship. I could become an entrepreneur with a focus on writing. I paid the fee and started immediately.
I sent a message with my news to a freelancing client who is a successful entrepreneur. He told me that he’d just begun to pray two days before that God would send him entrepreneurs to help. Suddenly, I had an enthusiastic and Godly mentor.
Out of nowhere, several other clients commissioned more work for me – some at double my rate. It was work I enjoyed and benefited from. Then another client, herself a web entrepreneur, offered to be a resource to me.
I had to stop applying for new freelancing work because I had too much to handle while also working on my class and Looking Upward content. Two weeks after I’d made the decision to step into obedience and do the work that God was calling me to do, I was making a living as a writer and had mentors to guide me along the path of entrepreneurship.
And, really, the idea of being an entrepreneur – much less online – makes me laugh because I’m not leadership-minded, or really interested in coding or website design. Social media (an essential to entrepreneurship anymore) weirds me out, and the idea of starting a company that’s somehow built around writing seems very much beyond me.
But, for the first time in my life, I really don’t care because I’ve seen that God will help us and direct our steps. I can see that even when God seems silent, he’s putting pieces together that we’ll only understand in retrospect. I’ve learned that keeping us near to him, especially when we’re brokenhearted. I can look back and see what I learned as a pianist or aspiring physician or theologian or from teaching or as a graduate school applicant. I wouldn’t go back in time to change that I’d pursued so many different things because I’m beginning to see how God ordained all of them to prepare me for where I am now. I believe he is doing the same thing for every single one of us who seeks to know him.
However, I do wish, and what I would like to go back and change if I could, is that I hadn’t fallen into unbelief that God had a purpose for me. I could have had the same amount of peace and joy that I do now when I was in the midst of the Career Crisis if I had not questioned God’s character. It was a lack of trust and believing that God was silent that made me miserable – not a lack of certainty about my calling. I know now that the Lord is always the opposite of silent. He cares deeply for each of us and hears our pain.
When my calling was no longer about my profession but instead defined by obedience, God rushed in and opened doors that I didn’t even know existed. I don’t really know what my life will look like in six months, but I know that my God will be the same, and that’s what I’m banking on.
That’s why I didn’t find myself in graduate school yesterday.
© Olivia Davis 2019, all rights reserved