When Walt Disney was fifteen years old, there was nothing he wanted more than a pair of leather boots with fancy straps and steel toes. He promised his parents he would wear them every day, begging for this one indulgence, probably doubting they'd ever relent.
His father, Elias, was a strict, frugal man who worked in the newspaper distribution business and enlisted his sons to deliver the papers for him every day for no pay. It was unlikely the Disneys could afford such expenses.
Nonetheless, one Christmas morning, to his surprise, Walt found those steel-toed boots underneath the tree. And as promised, he wore them every day, tramping around town on his paper route.
One day after delivering the papers, while crossing the street to visit some friends at the soda fountain, he attempted to kick a block of ice, but it didn't move. Instead of it scooting across the street, gliding from one side to the other, the block of ice stood in place—and Walt's brand-new boot stuck to it.
He felt a sharp pain race all the way up his leg. Looking down, Walt saw a long nail sticking out of the ice—and into his boot. He screamed, but his shouts fell on deaf ears for nearly twenty minutes until a carriageman finally stopped to help him.
After removing the nail from his foot, the doctor gave Walt a tetanus shot and told him he didn't have anything for the pain. The teenager would have to lie in bed for two weeks, without any pain reliever, while his foot healed.
Little did Walt know how important those two weeks in bed would be.
Take Time to Reflect
Before this happened, young Walt Disney was a directionless young man who struggled to pay attention in school. Both his parents and teachers were concerned about him. His prospects seemed limited.
About to enter high school and with few options for the future, Walt must have been forced to think about what he would do with his life during those days in bed.
He may have remembered the time he and his sister Ruth found a bucket of tar outside and decided to "paint" the house (which he assured her would easily come off). He painted beautiful pictures of houses, and she drew zigzags. The tar never did come off.
He may have recalled his friend Walter Pfeiffer, whose parents loved the cinema and theater and introduced him to the kind of entertainment that his parents wouldn't have allowed.
He may even have considered his struggles at school and how the only thing he seemed to be good at was amusing classmates with drawings and caricatures.
Whatever he thought during those two weeks, what we know is that when Walt Disney got out of bed, he was determined to become a cartoonist. That encounter with the nail seemed to give him the time and space he needed to reflect on his life and the lessons it was trying to teach.
Because he paid attention, the world would never be the same.
Some people think you "find" a calling, as if it's some mysterious thing "out there" that you've yet to encounter. But I think the way to our life's work is an inward journey. We have to "listen to our life," as Frederick Buechner wrote, to identify the talents that develop over time and recognize the God-given dreams inside us.
Some of us need time to reflect to make such discoveries, while others struggle to trust our own conclusions and need to hear the affirming words of someone else before we can take the next step with our dreams.
Become Who You Are
While working for a nonprofit organization as a marketing director, I was tapping into my passion for writing and creativity by leading a team of designers and copywriters. But as rewarding as the work was, there was still something missing.
One day, a friend asked what my dream was. I told him I didn't have one.
"Really?" he said. "I would've thought your dream was to be a writer."
“Well, yeah… I guess,” I said. “I mean, I’d like to be a writer… some
He laughed, “Jeff, you don’t have to want to be a writer. You are a writer. You just need to write.”
He was right. Those few words spoken at the right time voiced an unspoken dream and affirmed my talents—all at once, thanks to a friend, I understood who I was born to be.
At the time, the conversation seemed like an epiphany, but I realize in retrospect it was the culmination of several subtle realizations I’d experienced over a period of years. Hearing him speak my dream out loud confirmed what I’d already been sensing for a long time but couldn’t quite believe.
Although a calling can come from a voice deep inside you, sometimes we need to pay attention to those outside voices and choose to acknowledge what seems so obvious to others.
Delaying Dreams and Developing Talents
As I’ve thought about dreams, talents, and the calling that pulls them all together, one story stands out.
The prophet Samuel comes to anoint the next king and finds him in a field, herding sheep. The anointing is a powerful moment, but once it's over, what does young David do?
He goes back to being a shepherd, back to serving his family as the lowliest of men in the clan. And the next time we see him, he's bringing food to his brothers on the battlefield. He hasn’t increased in stature or authority—at least, not on the outside.
In other words, although God gave him a clear calling, a dream, his daily responsibilities didn’t immediately change. David developed the talents that would prepare him to be king over time, in the context of everyday life and work. For him, everything was practice.
Eventually, David’s talents would align with the anointing he received, in effect earning the prophet’s promise, but it would take years. So what did he do before that happened? He prepared for his dream in the midst of the mundane.
This is how it seems to unfold for a lot of people. While going about our everyday activities—whether writing a brochure, tending sheep or kicking a block of ice across the street after delivering the morning paper—we are developing those talents that will prepare us for the arrival of our dreams some day. And if we pay attention to our lives and remain patient, we can be grateful for the process as it unfolds, seeing it all converge into a calling.
Jeff Goins is a full-time writer, blogger, and speaker. He is the author of Wrecked and The In-Between. You can download a portion from The In-Between for free: Finding Your Calling. Follow Jeff online at his award-winning blog,Goinswriter.com, or connect with him on Twitter @JeffGoins.
Image by Alex Naanou. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.