Are You Looking for a Job or a Career? Or a Perhaps a Calling?
In Studs Terkel’s brilliant book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do—a collection of more than one hundred interviews with individuals who have varied backgrounds, from working-class grave diggers to high-powered executives—a similar message emerges. Even for those with the least power, Terkel found that “work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Revealing the vulnerabilities, challenges, and motivations that intersect with our professional identities, the most compelling subjects in Working find pride and satisfaction in the pursuit of excellence, a commitment to a cause or deep interest, or the determination to master a craft or skill.
Working was first published in 1971, a time in which the digital age hadn’t yet imposed on most of the American workforce the need to race the clock, making it an intellectual time capsule of sorts. I sensed in Terkel’s subjects—despite their socioeconomic diversity—a common desire to find meaning and make the best possible use of their intellect and creativity.
For thirty years, the Conference Board, a global economic think tank, has tracked US employee satisfaction, which dropped from 61 percent in 1987 to 43 percent in 2010 and then creeped up to 48 percent in 2016. The Conference Board indicates that we were happier in 1987 in most aspects of work including job security, wages, promotions, vacation, sick leave, and health and retirement plans. As Working seems to suggest, however, “interest in work” and in “people at work” are the most significant indicators of strong employee engagement.
Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, sagely observed:
“Scholars distinguish three kinds of ‘work orientation’: a job, a career and a calling. You do a job for the paycheck at the end of the week, and when the wage stops, you quit. A career entails a deeper personal investment in work. You mark your achievements through money, prestige and power, and you move on when the promotions stop. Unlike a job or a career, a calling is a passionate commitment to work for its own sake. The effort you expend becomes its own reward, regardless of the money or status it brings. People with callings are consistently happier than those with mere jobs or careers.”
What transforms a job into a career and a career into a calling? Do all of us need a calling or a career? Or can we find our calling in our off time, waking at 5:00 a.m. to write a novel in our attic under a swinging light bulb; spending weekends playing bass in a Celtic-punk-ska band; or collaborating with a friend to develop an app that provides daily mindfulness meditations? Can we merely like our job and not consider it a calling or a career? Can we like our career and not consider it a calling?
Terkel seemed to think that most people crave a calling. “Most of us, like the assembly-line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit,” he wrote in Working. “Jobs are not big enough for people.”
A key ingredient of a calling might be a state known as flow, defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “complete absorption in an activity whose challenges mesh perfectly with our abilities.” Flow is not merely pleasure but a loss of self-consciousness while engrossed in a task that “calls” on our strengths. People who experience it are not only happier but more productive, and they stop watching the clock in anticipation of the day’s end.
If you think callings are only for professionals, think again. Amy Qrzesniewski of New York University studied twenty-eight hospital cleaners and found that some viewed their work as drudgery, while others found ways to make it meaningful. Cleaners with a calling believed they were helping patients heal and approached their work accordingly. They timed themselves for efficiency, anticipated the practitioners’ needs, and took interest in brightening the patients’ days, whether by rearranging furniture or by decorating the walls.*
Researchers have seen the same phenomenon among secretaries, engineers, nurses, kitchen workers, and haircutters. The key to contentment, their studies suggest, is not getting the perfect job but using your creativity and resourcefulness to make your work more meaningful through conscientiousness, collaboration, positivity, and commitment to excellence.
As we mature, some of us find that true career happiness occurs when our career answers our calling and meets important financial goals. But what if our financial goals are not met? Entering a time when considerations like retirement and children’s college tuitions drive us to seek peace of mind, we might ask ourselves if we must abandon a true calling in order to find a “job” with a higher income.
It might be more helpful to shift our thinking away from a paradigm that divides jobs into “those with no soul that pay well” versus “those with soul that pay poorly.” Changing careers requires us to first do the work of finding out what drives us—creativity, meaning, connection with others, etc. We then need to ask ourselves if we can scratch that itch in our spare time by volunteering, pursuing a hobby, or engaging in a beloved art form or by approaching the work we currently do from a fresh perspective so that we can excel at it with a deeper level of engagement.
* Wrzesniewski, Amy, and Jane E. Dutton. "Crafting a job: Revisioning employees as active crafters of their work."Academy of management review26, no. 2 (2001): 179-201.