Tuesday, May 17, 2011

How Can I Find My Calling When I'm Stuck in this Lousy Job?

Like I said earlier, the question that students most often ask me is "how do I figure out what my calling in life is?" But I hear a different question from people on the other side of the diploma. Whenever I talk about my research to a group of employees, it's a guarantee that at least one will come up to me afterwards and say, "Yeah, but how can I ever find my calling when I'm stuck in a job I can't stand?" Behind the question is a thinly veiled skepticism about the things I teach: "Sure, it's very romantic to talk about being passionate about your work. But you're a professor. You live in la-la land. You don't know how hard it is in the 'real world.'"

Actually, I sort of think I do know. I was there for awhile. I was completely miserable in a corporate job that left me feeling numb, alienated, fractured.

And, probably like most people, I handled my alienation very badly. I turned inward, I watched the clock, I did enough good work to get by. And I waited every day, hoping for the "right job" to come along and save me.

Here's where my thinking was flawed: I thought that finding my calling in life meant finding a particular job. It's the classic fairy tale -- the slipper fits and we ride off into the sunset, happily ever after, my dream job and I.

The harsh reality is that most people never find a "dream" job. Most of us struggle away in imperfect organizations, wrestling with unsavory or impossible tasks, frequently underused or under-appreciated, and sometimes baffled about the point of it all. And that's just the pretty decent jobs!

But a job is not a calling. Going back to the very roots of the idea (all the way back to Martin Luther), a calling is a particular type of work that one feels destined to do because of one's personal gifts and unique opportunities. And the point of a calling is to bless other people. Very few job descriptions are perfectly aligned with the occupant's gifts and talents. But most people can find some way to put their own unique stamp on their work by discovering and employing their particular gifts, their particular way of doing the job.

So what should I have done instead of biding my time in my crummy corporate job, waiting for happiness to come to me? I wish that I had said, "Fine. I don't really like this place. It doesn't naturally bring out the best in me. But I wonder how I can make it a better place? Is there something creative I can contribute? Can I make things easier, better, more interesting, more fulfilling for my coworkers? Can I surprise and delight my clients?" I'm ashamed to admit that such thoughts never really crossed my mind.

In short, I wish that I had stopped thinking so much about myself and instead thought, "how can I serve?"

One of the greatest lessons I have learned about life callings is that, almost invariably, people discover what their callings are while in service to others, rather than in service to self. It's the classic paradoxical principle that Jesus taught: when we lose ourselves, we find ourselves. And here's the payoff to people who are in lousy jobs: the likeliest way you can get beyond your lousy job is by throwing your heart into helping other people in, and around, your organization. Doing so will help illuminate what your unique gifts are, and it will make you an extraordinary employee. (You also will probably start to hate your job a little less.)

And -- here's the clincher -- when you become extraordinary in the unique professional service you render, the "right job" is much more likely to find you.

I would have made a much bigger difference in my corporate job if I'd realized that.


  1. I'm Heather Packs little brother, I lurked this from her facebook. Thank you, I appreciate your words. I'm currently re-inventing myself and find it easy to get trunky in my current job. I've been reading some books lately though and find a new excitement everyday at work. So even though this job isn't my long life career, I am enjoying it and making a mark in my little world. This post is probably just a way to feel a bit more inspired and less complainy. (sp?) Thanks Jeff, and it's great to e-meet you.

    Adam Buchanan

  2. Adam, any brother of Heather's is a friend of mine! So glad the post resonated with you. Would love to meet you sometime.


  3. This was really interesting, thank you. When you mentioned "going all the way back to Martin Luther," what is the original quote you're referencing? I love a good source citation :) again, thank you!

  4. Thanks for the question, Chel. I hope you read German! :)

    Luther, M.
    1883 Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe, vol. 44, 10I, 1: 317. Weimar: Hermann Bohlaus.

  5. Thank you! I am going thru the same struggle- and slowly coming to the same conclusion...loose myself (by serving others) so I may find myself...(suggestion from the Most High) :) and actually knowing HIM more, He who knows my purpose in life...:) so thank you for reconfirming it...