Your Work: A Job, Career, or Calling?

Your job is never just your job, but a core element of your life.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

Jon Tyson/unsplash
Source: Jon Tyson/unsplash

Leben and arbeiten, love and work, said Freud about what drives life. Love can be fickle, somewhat out of our control. But work — here’s where we can step up, this is something we can control… sort of.

Unfortunately for too many of us, work is what we have to do to maintain our life, to make money, support ourselves and our families. It is what we do to keep our life running. Through trial and error, we figure out what works — what combination of skills and personality and opportunities make an often good-enough fit.

But for many more of us, we are fortunate to have choices not only about our work — what do you want to be when you grow up? — but how we think about its role in our lives. While our love life may continue to be fickle, work can be more steady, a foundation upon which we can build our self-esteem, our sense of purpose.

And so, we train and learn on the job, at a tech school, in college to develop… something — an identity, a label that solidifies at least part of who we are. While our teenage years are usually about making money, staying busy, and stepping into the work world with its sense of responsibility and learning curves, our 20s and 30s are about creating that label.

But once we're solidly down that path, we reach a fork in the road: What is the role of work in our lives? Basically we have three possible perspectives.

#1. My work is a job.

You trained to be a computer programmer, lawyer, vet tech, or hairstylist because you were interested in the work, found yourself good at it, found that it paid well enough. But for you, regardless of your title and what you do, your job is your job. You enjoy what you do when you need to do what you do, but you’re not one to work overtime, wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the next day, thinking about the next steps to move forward in a career. You do what you do because it is the best way right now to make money, maintain your lifestyle, and your only thoughts about "career" are about how to possibly make more money. 

What is more important in your life are other things — your kids, your family, your passion for rebuilding old cars, or playing the saxophone in a local band. Work's not on the top of your list; it's a means not an end.

#2: My work is my career.

Yes, my job is a job but it is something more. Here you envision a trajectory, a path marked by clear stepping stones: I get my certification or license or degree and these are entry tickets to a moving up a ladder, a vision of where you ultimately want to be. Law school eventually will lead to partner; vet tech eventually leads to becoming a full-fledged vet in your own practice; hair styling is the start of opening your own salon or becoming the stylist for the stars. You have a path, you have steps and a timeline. Now is one step in becoming who you ultimately want to be.

#3: My work is a calling.

This is where work becomes a big percentage of who I am, not necessarily in terms of hours or money, but of driven purpose, identity: My religious beliefs call on me to serve others in my own way, my relationship with animals causes me to work for PETA or run a shelter, my relationship with the law makes me an advocate for the needy or helpless. I do what I do because I need to do what I do. You feel that you really don’t have any other choice, that this is what you were put here to do.

For many of us, we can rotate through some combination of all of the above depending on the day, our stress level, where we are in our lives. For others, our perspectives on job, career, or calling may take hold for years or decades, but then slowly or suddenly shift: career replaces job, kids replace career, career replaces calling. Our priorities change because we, and what we need from our lives, change. 

Successfully navigating these changes is about both realizing that these changes may come, and periodically stepping back and reflecting on the role of your work in your life. If you don’t, if you continue to just run on autopilot, it becomes all too easy to lose the relationship between your work and you, between your work and your life. You instead fall into the everyday grind, continue to do what you do because it's what you do; you've lost your vision or have given up and feel it is too late to change. You reconcile yourself to a life you are given rather than a life you can create. 

But you don't want to give up on creating your life. So, step back and ask the questions: What role does work play in your life right now? Is it fulfilling what you need most? What do you need or want to change?

Listen to your answers. Find a way of making your work represent who you are. Act.