Oliver Page

Do you have a job, a career or a calling?

21 May, 2021
Job, career or calling featured image

Image by Joe

Lately I’ve been obsessed with the idea that I need to discover my ‘calling’ in life. And unfortunately for the people I know, I’ve also been projecting that obsession onto them – for instance, I’ve noticed myself getting judgy when someone describes their work as little more than a standard 9-5.

The truth is, of course, I can only judge them from a privileged position. Seeking more meaning from work isn’t everybody’s top priority.

It’s fine to see work as way to fund your personal life. It’s also fine to see work as no more than an arena for professional growth. I might be stating the obvious, but maybe sometimes the deeper purpose and the lofty mission can wait.

I do feel compelled to uncover my life’s calling, but that’s only because my basic costs of living are covered. Maslow’s hierarchy and all that.

Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Yale, described 3 distinct workplace orientations. They can be used to classify how people feel about their work:

  • Job orientation: if your priority is earning enough to get by, or sustaining a desired standard of living for you/your loved ones, then you’re in this camp. The job is the job, and nothing more.
  • Career orientation: if climbing career ladders, obtaining prestigious titles, or using work build a network is your thing, then you probably fall into this camp.
  • Calling orientation: if your aim is to serve others in a way that’s authentic to who you are, and align yourself with a deeper purpose, you may be seeing work through the calling orientation.

Note, there can be overlap between each orientation. For example, while my dominant focus is the calling orientation, I still care about funding my lifestyle and excelling in my field.

Which camp do you predominantly fall into? Reflecting on this can foster acceptance around how you feel about your current work situation.

Here are 3 insights I had after mulling this over myself.

1. There is no ‘best’ orientation

Thus far I’ve done a poor job of understanding those seeing work through a different lens. The fact is, none of the orientations are right or wrong.

Take person A, with mountains of high-interest debt and a family to feed. Perhaps all this person can think about right now is getting any job that will hire them.

Or how about person B, fresh out of university with a hunger to establish independence and a sense of achievement. The career orientation could work for them at this point in time.

Then there’s person C. They’re going through a crisis of integrity while burning out from a high-flying corporate career. Perhaps they feel nudged into exploring what the calling orientation has to offer.

These are stereotypes of course, but I don’t mean to imply it follows any kind of pattern. My main point is that each orientation can serve a particular purpose at a particular point in time.

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2. The myth of the built-in calling

I find it fascinating to learn that we’re (roughly) even split across the 3 orientations. That’s regardless of our job title. This implies that purpose is very personal – it doesn’t depend on our title, rank or how grandiose our work sounds.

When I reached my late teens, I had no direction, no sense of what I wanted from life.

I considered medical school and thought, bingo – there’s my opportunity. There’s my purpose. Medicine offered stability, a professional identity, and endless growth. But more than that, it also promised to deliver a built-in calling, packaged and ready to go.

Little did I know at the time, that’s not how callings work. I didn’t feel aligned and I wasn’t really in touch with my heart.

Research shows that feeling a sense of calling is dependent on whether our work draws out our innate character strengths. Only then do we begin to resonate and connect with the meaning of our work.

When I saw that my essential nature and my deepest strengths ran at odds to the role of doctor, I felt compelled to explore other roads to the calling orientation.

3. Work as the new church

Religions used to shield us from the confusion and ambiguity inherent in existence. Churches were havens where people would congregate around out-of-the-box meanings.

Our world today is very different. With the relentless rise of secularisation, the Pandora’s Box labelled “What’s the meaning of life?” has been flung wide open.

Perhaps this has led people like me to want more from their jobs than ever before. Perhaps my spiritual confusion has pushed me to see work as the new church. Perhaps this is problematic.

But then again, maybe it depends on how attached I become to the path. If I can approach the journey from a place of fullness rather than emptiness, maybe it will be worthwhile.

After all, many historical figures before me have found joy, meaning and fulfilment by seeing their work as something higher and more transcendent. Some of those people make me proud to be a human being.