Bruce Springsteen recently led the long awaited return of Broadway by bringing back his award-winning one-man show. My wife Stephanie and I enjoyed seeing Springsteen on Broadway when it first opened in 2017. The Boss shares fascinating stories about his life, including one that instantly resonated with me.
Imagine yourself an 8-year-old who has no doubt that you will grow into a famous performer. Bruce Springsteen tells the story of how he experienced that rare “calling” and had every confidence, at a very young age, that his outsize ambition would come to fulfillment.
Has it ever! He is a cultural phenomenon whose success has been matched by only a handful of others in the history of modern music.
I related well to his story because of what I experienced early in life.
When it happened to me, I wasn’t 8. I was 23, still very young as careers and lifespans go.
UP THE CAREER LADDER
Like Springsteen, I felt as if I could see into my future — 3, 5, 8, 12 years ahead.
For reasons I can’t, to this day, fully explain, I was able to visualize where on my career ladder I would be, and in most cases, I even predicted the year it would happen. It’s not about ego. It has more to do with vision and confidence. I just felt it in my bones.
I believe it also is vital to have a mentor, which I can’t recommend strongly enough. Mentors are as essential as vision, ambition and confidence.
My professional life began as an executive trainee at A&S, and culminated as the founding CEO of rue21, which, by 2016, I had built into the largest specialty apparel retailer, by store count (1,200-plus), in America.
In my origin story, I owe my “calling” as a retail innovator to Dr. Paul Vahanian.
He was a marriage counselor, author and teacher at Columbia University, who, in the 1970s was my advisor when I was a graduate student in marriage counseling.
MUSIC TO MY EARS
He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said that I wasn’t positive that I wanted to be a marriage counselor. I said that I just didn’t know which other career to choose at the time.
Dr. Vahanian then gave me the simplest and best advice of my life: “I don’t think you should be a marriage counselor,” he told me. “It’s not for you.” It was music to my ears!
So, if you choose your career as I initially did — without genuine enthusiasm — I hope you re-think your choice while you still can search for your calling and make the most of it as a career.
That’s exactly what I did, and it made all the difference in my life. I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my career, and can’t imagine myself today as a marriage counselor — or anything other than what I became. That’s as unrelatable to me as being an astronaut.
A DAY OF EPIPHANY
What I experienced the first day at A&S was an epiphany for me. I was excited by the enjoyment and confidence it gave me to be in such a dynamic environment. I had found something where I had the freedom to be myself.
Just as making music was the only thing that 8-year-old Bruce Springsteen wanted to do, for 23-year-old Bob Fisch, it was clear as could be that the business world of retailing was my “calling.” It was meant to be.
“Those who experience their work as a calling are most likely to feel a deep alignment between their vocation and who they are as a person. They feel a personal and emotional connection to their work.” That’s how Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management, describes it.
That’s also how I would describe almost every job I’ve ever held in my career. Which brings us to two more key words — job and career.
SORRY, WRONG CALLING
As the saying goes, things are not always what they seem. You can have a calling that doesn’t become your career. The most obvious example, perhaps, is someone who is expected to join the family business, but whose talents and interests may not be aligned with running that particular company.
That’s why it’s common for adult children in line to inherit vast fortunes — the oil-rich Getty offspring spring to mind — instead choose to go off on their own to pursue a truer “calling,” often in the arts (and they often are not successful).
They miss the mark because they tend to be missing something.
Springsteen had a vision and confidence. So did I. Those are not enough on their own, though. Neither is passion. You’d be hard pressed to meet almost any serious musician who is not passionate about his or her craft.
THE MISSING INGREDIENT
Then what is it that separates 99.9999% of passionate musicians with a calling from the likes of Bruce Springsteen? It’s more than vision, confidence, or passion. The missing ingredient is sweat equity. Buckets and buckets of it.
To turn your calling into a successful career takes a tremendous amount of perseverance. There’s a notable difference between a calling that feels pre-ordained, and an actual career that ends up richly rewarding, both spiritually and financially. In between those points A and Z is a sizable gap you have to fill with a plan, and with a relentless pursuit of excellence.
I look at it this way … A calling is inspiration. A career is perspiration.
Where does a job fit into all this? It does and it doesn’t.
Are you working to live or living to work? That’s how a member of my Millennial Advisory Board, Nicole Campbell, likes to put it. If you only are working to live — paycheck to paycheck — you have neither a calling nor much of a career.
HAVE IT BOTH WAYS
If, however, you are living to work — and, of course, to enjoy the fruits of your labor — you have a shot at finding your true calling and converting it into a long and memorable career.
In other words, you should be doing both — living to work and working to live.
If pulling down a regular wage by holding a job is not a way to find a calling or build a career, how can there be any such thing as a dream job?
By our definition of a job being a holding pattern while you figure out your dream career, those two words are an oxymoron — they don’t seem to belong together.
When you love what you do, they say that work doesn’t feel like labor. There’s some truth to that. But you still need to constantly be working at what you want, how much you want it, and how to get it. Thinking in job terms is short-term thinking. Even if you love what you do,“Where is this job taking me?” is the question you need to ask yourself. You won’t get far cruising on auto pilot.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
Springsteen didn’t just show up one day in a recording studio and turn out hit songs, as if by magic. That’s the only part we see. It’s like the proverbial iceberg — what we hear on a recording or see on the stage is the tiny tip of countless hours of experimentation and sweat equity required to reach that high point and produce the sounds that thrill his legion of fans.
Whether or not you already have found your calling, what does it take to be successful?
To me, it means not only accepting challenges. It means welcoming challenges. Only by doing that can you keep climbing higher, sharpen your skills, outwit the competition, and build an audience who want what you have.
Think of a calling as a gift you give yourself. It comes from inside you.
Ask yourself two key questions …
What are the signals that point me toward the gift I have — what is it I love to do, and that I would excel at doing for the rest of my life?
Now … what am I going to do with that gift?