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Gregg Levoy on Meaningful Work

On the future of mental health

eric Maisel
Source: eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Gregg Levoy

EM: In my view, many emotional and mental problems are caused or exacerbated by spending long hours at work that one doesn’t enjoy or believe in. Can you tell us a little bit about your views on this in relation to “callings” or “right livelihood?”

GL: The great vocational question isn't “What should I do with my life” or “What do I want to be when I grow up?” It's “Who am I?” And if there's a poor fit between who you are and what you do, a mismatch between your work and your deepest values and sense of purpose, there'll be consequences for your mental and physical health.

Just prior to losing a job that was a lousy match for me, I found myself routinely falling asleep on the job, battling low-grade depression, coming in to work late, leaving work early, and engaging in constant clock-watching, extra-long lunches, indiscriminate wastes of supplies, and sick days I came back from with a tan.

As the ancient Romans used to say, “The Fates lead those who will; those who won’t they drag.” Apparently a lot of folks are getting dragged. The Gallup company conducted a worldwide poll in 2012 of 142 countries, and found that, on average, 87% of workers are either “not engaged” (63%) or “actively disengaged” (24%). Only 13% were “engaged.” In the U.S. alone, this results in $500 billion in lost productivity. And a lot of unhappy campers.

Not-engaged means checked out, but actively-disengaged means you’re busy acting out your unhappiness and dispiritedness and spreading the virus among your colleagues, family and friends, to say nothing of the body-politic, of which you’re a single cell.

EM: What can a person do if he or she is trapped in unenjoyable, objectionable, or meaningless work?

GL: For starters, acknowledge it. As with confession, something inside you needs to be admitted, in both senses of the word. Owned up to, and allowed into consciousness.

Then begin looking for the signs and signals that tell you where passion and purpose do show up in your life. Don't wait around for the vocational version of burning bushes. Look for the smaller calls that are right at your feet—the fire-drills for the bigger ones:

* Intuitions. Most of the calls we receive, and ignore, are the proverbial still, small voices that the Biblical prophets heard.

* Dreams that tell you what you really know about something.

* Body symptoms. The psychologist Arnold Mindell, founder of Process Oriented Psychology, says that symptoms are dreams trying to come true. Let some recurring symptom speak to you: “My dream is that you would…...”

* Wherever there’s friction in your life, because as in nature, friction occurs where changes are trying to take place. Where does your head constantly argue you’re your heart, or passion with security?

* The patterns in your life. The lessons you’ve endlessly had to learn, the mistakes you continually find yourself making, the kind of partner you continually attract, getting fired again, the section of the bookstore you always go to first.

EM: Do you have an anecdote of a person trapped in meaningless work who found his or her calling and as a result improved his or her mental health?

GL: Here's one from my own files:

I’m not generally prone to depression, but a couple of years ago I had a nasty bout of it. I was sleeping too much, feeling lazy, bored, disconnected from everything and everyone, lacking initiative but restless. I just felt profoundly off, and couldn’t get to the bottom of it.

Until I had a dream of being chased by an enormous black dragon—the size of a T-rex with wings—and feeling like a rabbit who couldn’t find a hole to duck into. I tried fighting off the dragon with a safety pin, and finally, out of sheer fright, woke up.

My interpretation of the dream was that the dragon was my writing. My real writing. Not the academic-style writing I’d been doing a lot of at that point, but the freewriting/stream-of-consciousness practice I meant to be doing alongside it, but wasn’t. In a sense, I was playing it safe with all that cautious, academic writing—thus the absurdly inadequate safety-pin defense—when I should have been doing more passionate, intuitive writing.

But the dragon woke me up, literally and figuratively, and over the next few months I started doing my real writing again—and the boredom and depression lifted!

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do in the area of callings?

GL: Years ago I ran across the work of an Italian writer named Alberto Moravia, who said it's important in life to pursue “the one problem you were born to understand.” This is mine: how can people create a life that truly belongs to them and isn't a “knockoff.”

In an article on the top five regrets of the dying, written by a palliative-care nurse named Bronnie Ware, the #1 regret was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

My passion for this subject has led me to write two books about it, to stay close to my own callings throughout my life, and to teach widely on the subject.

People interested in exploring it themselves can visit


Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (Random House), and Vital Signs: Discovering and Sustaining Your Passion for Life (Penguin). His website is


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

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