Is your work a job, career or a calling?

In the classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said, “the search for meaning is the primary motivation in a life.” In practical terms, that means that our lives are a continual work in progress as we each try to live a meaningful and happy life. For most of us work is an important part of the quest for meaning as well as a major component of our self-identity. Our work serves a variety of purposes starting with basic economic need, but it’s usually much more than just a paycheque. Work provides many other things – friendship, challenge, engagement, and, hopefully, life fulfillment. Though everyone’s work will not necessarily provide all of these things, the work community is often the most important community that we belong to, after family. Despite the increased importance of leisure in recent years, it seems that work is still the prime driver in people’s lives. The question is “what does your work mean to you? And how does this affect the rest of your life?”

One interesting way to think about what work means to you is to use the job-career-calling model devised by Bellah et al in 1985. This model states that work can be viewed in three different ways with very different outcomes and potential influences on a meaningful life. A JOB is work you do just for the money. It is not necessarily something you enjoy and in fact may be something that you really dislike. What is important is the income from the job that you need to live. You are not that invested in it and it is not where you find happiness or meaning. Most of us have had to do this kind of work at sometime in our working lives. A CAREER is about much more than money. It is work where you have much greater investment of time, money, and emotion. You want ongoing growth and development and envision a productive future in that work, whatever it is, whether lawyer, teacher, or janitor. You want your work to be something that you enjoy and you are much more attached to a career than a job. It is a significant part of your self-identity, and research shows it significantly impacts on your ability to find meaning in your life. Lastly, there is work that are CALLINGS. A calling is work that you would do even if you had no need for money or that you do for free. It is work that you feel incredibly drawn to and that you feel is your life purpose. It is the number one source of your sense of self and meaning in life. Callings don’t have to be religious conversions, though that is where the term comes from. A calling, by definition, means that the work is of such importance to you that it no longer feels like work. Research indicates that the happiest and most successful people see their work as a calling, and therefore happily put their time and energy into the achievement of their goals.

The job, career, calling model shows that it does not necessarily depend on the type of work that you do. An activity can mean different things to different people and the same work position can be a job for one person, a career for another and a calling for a third. The research also shows that how you view your work can change. Work can go from a job to a career to a calling and even back again. After graduation a person may take a work position just because they need a job. But, as time goes on they may come to view it as a career or even a calling. Many people, especially those in their late thirties to early fifties, experience a career plateau. They ponder the questions, “What am I doing with my life? Is this all there is?” It is then natural for people to change their expectations in their life prompting them to seek out mid-career renewal. If the individual feels his/her life is no longer, or perhaps never was, fulfilling then it is natural for him/her to experience anxiety and depression. Like many others, I changed careers in my early forties. Despite having what I still believe was a great job working for a great organization, I slowly came to realize that it no longer meant the same to me as it did originally and did not give me the same level of satisfaction and growth. What I realized was that I had lost my calling. And so after a lot of deliberation, I left my work and returned to school.

The challenge, then, is to understand what your work means to you now versus what you want it to mean. There’s nothing wrong with work just being a job – you may have many other avenues of self-fulfillment. But for some people, work is the most important activity in life and if you’re not happy with where you are with work then you need to ask yourself some questions: What do you want from work? Where would you rate the importance of your work at the moment? Is your current rating the one you wish in the future? Or, is it higher or lower than you would like? Do you want a job, a career, or a calling? There are no right answers. But it’s up to you to decide how important work will be in your life. The key is to regularly examine your life and if need be, to adjust the pieces of the puzzle to understand what gives you meaning and happiness.

Originally published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald (Nov. 1, 2007)

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