Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What if My Calling in Life Doesn't Pay Enough to Live On?

I had lunch today with Eli, a terrific former student. He was a superstar in the MPA program, and then accepted a challenging HR job. After a year, he knew he was in the wrong place. So he left, and landed his current job, which is teaching elementary school to 7- and 8-year olds in a French language immersion school.

Eli's eyes light up when he talks about his work. He knows that he is really making a difference. He shared a story about a belligerent child that he was able to reach, and who now enjoys school. It was obvious to me that Eli is flourishing in his work. It may be his life's calling.

But the reason for our lunch was to discuss a difficult question. It's one I hear a lot, but I must confess I don't think I have a great answer yet. Eli asked: "What if your calling in life won't pay the bills? Is it irresponsible of me to do something I love if I can't comfortably support my family at it?"

Let me tread cautiously here. I certainly can't answer that question for anyone else. But I've thought about it a lot, and would like to share a couple of reactions and stories.

Reaction #1: What does it really mean to support a family? If you contrast our luxurious Western lifestyle with most of the world, even our school teachers live in comparative opulence. Our perspective on "supporting a family" may be a little warped! My father was a school teacher. I grew up in a tiny house with very simple means (by US standards). Money was tight, and often a worry. Dad did extra jobs to make ends meet. But I did not personally suffer one iota from not having the best toys or the coolest vacations. My childhood was golden, and I like to think that I learned perspective, economy, and (hopefully) humility because of my upbringing. I certainly benefited from an example of a father who did meaningful work extremely well.

Reaction #2: What hidden costs are you incurring by accepting lucrative work that you don't love? During my short and miserable corporate career, I came home from work diminished. Because my work consumed my energy, rather than igniting it, I felt depleted by 6pm, and was less of a husband and father than I could have been. I probably would be wealthier now if I'd stayed on the corporate track. But I shudder to think what it might have cost me in terms of my well-being and family relationships. If you are concerned about whether your work gives you enough money to support your kids, give deep consideration to this: how do you weigh the importance of giving your kids money against the importance of giving them your energy, joy, and example?

Reaction #3: Are you really sure that your calling won't pay off in the long run? We are most likely to excel when our work is our calling. And people who excel usually (not always) get rewarded in the long run. My MBA ethics professor told a story of a student who was passionate about restoring old cars. But he planned to set aside that passion for a financially secure career, even though he dreaded the work he was headed for. My professor urged him to trust that his real talents would allow him to be successful. So he took the great gamble and pursued a career in auto restoration. He eventually became one of the foremost car restorers in the world, owned his own auto museum, and did extremely well financially. I am not making any guarantees about your future by sharing this romantic story! But it is worth remembering as you think about whether you can "afford" your calling or not.

There are no easy answers to Eli's question. And I did suggest to Eli the possibility of shifting to a more lucrative career that could still capture his calling in life. But I hope you don't rush too quickly to abandon your calling because it might not make you rich. When I die, I'd rather have a smile on my lips from the joy of meaningful work than ulcers from toiling unpleasantly to make money.

And I'll take to my grave exactly the same dollar amount as the rich guy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Passion and Pizza: Finding Callings in Surprising Places

Sometimes my students teach me profound things about work as a calling. One day when I was teaching in Ohio, I asked the students (as I often do) what work they would do if they were wildly wealthy. I got the typical list, ranging from sports franchise owner to humanitarian.

Then one student, Nick LaRosa, said "I would do what I do right now. I'd serve pizza."

At first, I thought Nick was joking. Why would someone choose food service, of all things, if he could do any work he wanted? But Nick was absolutely serious.

Nick's grandfather, if my memory serves, is the founder of LaRosa's Pizzeria in Cincinnati, and Nick grew up in the family business. You can check out the company here.

As near as I recall, Nick explained his answer as follows: 

"I love what I do. People come to our restaurant to celebrate, and to be with each other. When I serve them a great pizza, I'm part of a memory-making moment. I can't think of anything more satisfying than contributing to wonderful memories among family and friends." 

As Nick finished speaking, the class grew quiet -- almost reverent. It was a moving testimonial. 

Nick's comments reminded me of one of my favorite interviews in Studs Terkel's book "Working." Terkel interviewed a waitress named Dolores Dante who considered herself an artist at her food service craft. You might want to check out an excerpt of what she had to say here. It's amazing. Better yet, buy the book!

In any case, Nick taught me that we might be missing the boat if we are looking for glamor in our life's calling. Instead, maybe we should be looking for the simple acts that we love to do -- particularly the ones that make others happy. 

Oh, and make sure you give a big smile and a big tip to food servers who treat you like Nick and Dolores would!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beating Drudgery at Work (Part II)

I often hear people complain that their jobs don't challenge them, or that they are just putting in their time at a lousy company until they can discover their true calling in life. I sympathize with those folks, because I have been there. But -- and I hope people won't take offense at this -- I also wonder if we sometimes use drudgery as a crutch to excuse ourselves from exercising our callings. 

Of course, some jobs just don't fit us particularly well. But are you perhaps taking too static a view of your job? Granted, you probably have a list of formal job descriptions that aren't negotiable, but unless you are on a factory floor (and sometimes even then), you may have a lot more discretion than you recognize to shape what you do and how you do it. 

Let me introduce three brilliant and wonderful colleagues (some of my favorite people!) who have made a huge splash with a new tool: "Job Crafting." Justin Berg (Wharton), Jane Dutton (U. of Michigan), and Amy Wrzesniewski (Yale) have developed an exercise that has been highlighted in Time Magazine, Business Week, and other major media outlets. It's a fascinating and fun activity that helps you, in about an hour's time, to create visual representations of your work and identify ways that you can reshape your job to better fit your gifts and interests. To quote the Job Crafting website, the exercise "encourages you to view your job in a new way — as a flexible set of building blocks rather than a fixed list of duties." 

I love that perspective! If you feel alienated by your job, or mired in drudgery, you don't have to postpone finding your calling. Start building your gifts into your work now. 

I heartily endorse the Job Crafting exercise. Check it out here! There's a great video that explains how it works, and there is a free version for students. 


Friday, July 1, 2011

Beating Drudgery at Work (Part I)

So, if you are reading this blog, I hope you are getting the picture that having a calling doesn't mean that work is all fun and games. Indeed, our zookeeper research suggests that slogging through drudgery is a price you pay to find meaning; drudgery and meaning are often two sides of the same coin. It usually takes a lot of mundane work to create something that lasts.

If you pay too much attention to the romanticized version of calling (i.e., 24/7 bliss), you can easily start to feel cheated at work: "Hey, if this is what I'm really meant to do, why am I bored/tired/disinterested/etc.?"

I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, but I'll share just one tonight. And it's personal.

My academic profession is most definitely my calling in life. But the drudgery of writing - especially when I'm facing the dreaded blank computer screen at the beginning of a project - can almost paralyze me. I have to drag myself to write that first sentence, and the second one is only marginally easier. On my worst days, I find a thousand creative ways to postpone my writing. I gradually accrue little droplets of guilt, and by the end of the day, with nothing written, I'm drenched in it. String enough of those guilt-soaked days together, and it's easy to begin doubting whether I'm really meant to be a professor.

Then I learned a technique that changed everything. In fact, I attribute getting tenure to this one strategy. It's not rocket science. It's simply to BEGIN every work day by spending 15 minutes on the hardest thing you have to do. (A hearty thanks to my friend, Jane Birch of the BYU Faculty Center, for teaching me this!)

The results were astonishing.

  • First, I was amazed at how much I could get done in just 15 minutes of focused writing. 
  • Second, 15 minutes was usually enough to get me over the drudgery hump, and I often wrote for much longer. 
  • Third, the rest of my day was unencumbered with dread or guilt, so I felt far more energized and creative. 
  • Fourth, I reconnected with my sense of calling. I knew who I was. I was a scholar, because I was writing!
Caveat: just because this worked so well for me, doesn't mean it's a one-size-fits-all technique. Some people feel better starting with a fun task and gradually working into the harder stuff. But if your sense of drudgery is overpowering your sense of calling, try doing the hardest thing first. You might find, like me, that your professional calling snaps into perspective once you stop hiding from the biggest challenges.