I listened to a podcast the other day where I heard about how people think of the work they do in one of three categories: a job, a career or a calling. Just to give proper attribution (and because I actually REMEMBER where I heard it), this was on an episode of Kelly Corrigan’s amazing podcast called Kelly Corrigan Wonders and she was speaking with Meg Garlinghouse from LinkedIn. But after listening to these two women for 15 minutes, my life may have just been forever changed.
So again, the concept is that everyone has their own level of engagement with what they do for work. For some people, many people, (most people?), work is a job. It’s the thing you do to get money, just a transaction. I show up here and do these tasks and you give me money I can turn into food and shelter at the end of the week. No more, no less. These folks do not get up early to show up to their place of business early with a smile on their faces, no, no, no. They do what they’re supposed to. Clock in on schedule and clock out on schedule, but don’t expect them to be happy about it; it’s just what has to be done. Jobs come and go, but you can’t expect folks who think of work as a job to be loyal or anything.
The second level of work is a career. If you describe your work as a career, you have leveled up. You know what you want to do with your life and you know you are on the path to get there. This may not be the best work situation and you may not stay long, but it’ll probably be because you’re moving up, not just moving on. You are building something and this position may be the foundation for something much larger.
Then there are those who feel their work is a calling; it is what you must do and you do it gladly. You may be able to find work that pays more but you don’t care! Maybe you work in the public sector or at a nonprofit, or you just plain found a position that suits you. The calling is the sort of work situation that you would do for no pay, as long as your financial needs are met. Getting to work in a position you would describe as a calling is a blessing few people get to experience in their lives, but I have a theory as to why this is, and it’s not that we’re overrun with bullshit jobs in our economy now. It’s that most people are just not capable or inclined to do the sort of deep personality examination required to bring a calling-level energy to their work. The work you do has very little to do with which category your work falls in.
Allow me to share with you an example. I have worked for the same company for 2 weeks short of 17 years. My work is nothing incredible; it’s essentially data analysis and processing. I work in a department of about 40 people in 4+ international locations (all working from home for 18 months now). We have trained people from a number of backgrounds to do the job, and a few really take to it and move on to other positions in the company after a few years. There are many that drop out entirely too, go back to school, realize there are other companies they would rather work for, etc. But us long-timers, I think we’re still here because there is something the position offers that strikes us as a calling. At least that’s true in my case, though every day, I question whether this depth of passion for what others view as simply their “day job” has served me well or not.
I believe it is your level of dedication to whatever work you are doing that determines whether you consider that work a calling, a career or just a job. It says more about your capacity for dedication and interest in anything than it says about the job itself. And yet we misattribute how purpose-driven we are in our positions to the work not to the human. My calling is for accuracy and efficiency and I found a position with a company that is supposed to (and used to) prioritize those things. But as time has gone on, I realize I may be one of very few folks who still hold that ideal that deeply in my heart. My position has changed underneath me and those around me do not understand my calling. They think a job is just a job, even if it pays well.
I have been told countless times to let things go, to not be such a stickler (especially for data accuracy things), and that in order to be a “leader” I have to account for the feelings/emotions of others. But what they are wholly incapable of taking into account are my feelings and emotions because they don’t have the capacity for the same depth of passion about their work that I have. The career people have all advanced to “leadership” roles and I have not. Yet I should be acting more like a leader and they do not have to understand/lead me?
This has gotten a little rant-y and a little off-topic, I’ll admit. My point is this: you can treat any position and any work as a calling. All you have to do is know your personal values and find an area of the work that is in alignment with those values and hold onto it. But it all starts with you and your self-knowledge. If you do work that is completely antithetical to your values, you will have a hard time considering that your calling, even if you haven’t identified your values in the first place.
Once you determine your values, you can figure out whether your current position has any alignment with your values. If it does, focus on that alignment and deepen your relationship with your work. It is OK to put your whole self into your work, even if others do not understand you. If your current work bears no alignment with your values, it is likely you won’t have to look too far away. A subtle shift in your work or your mindset about your work may be all you need.
And before you say, “I can’t afford to live the life I want if my work is my calling,” I will challenge you on that as well. Will you be amazingly rich? Possibly, but probably not. But you do not HAVE to work for low wages or give up security to find a calling. Again, is all about your mindset and your alignment.
So to my coworkers who read this: you may consider this work a job you only do for pay/insurance or the first step in a career, but some of us consider this to be our calling. It doesn’t mean we’re just too lazy or risk-averse to go out and find another job (though we may be those things too). It means we actually deeply care about what we do on a daily basis and we feel as though what we are contributing to the world through our work is important to someone and we take it very seriously.