Job, Career, or Calling? What is Your Work Orientation?

How do you view your current work? Is it a job, a career, or a calling? Are you waiting to start or find your “dream job” to pursue your calling or to leave your mark on the world?

 Job, career, or calling?

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Yale psychologist Amy Wrzesniewski has interviewed thousands of workers in hundreds of different professions and found that people have one of three mindsets about their work. She calls them “work orientations.” They are:

  • It’s a job. Work is drudgery and the paycheck is the only reward. These people work because they have to and for no other reason. Their mantra is “Thank God it’s Friday” and “Oh God, it’s Monday.”
  • It’s a career. Career-minded individuals also work only because they have to, but they are more ambitious. In addition to the paycheck, being seen and being promoted are their rewards. They are usually more invested in their company’s success and want to impress others.
  • It’s a calling. This is the ultimate work orientation. This mindset states that your work has purpose, that it contributes to the good of society as a whole. These people, predictably, find their work more rewarding than the first two orientations. As a result, they often work longer and harder, while suffering none of the usual side effects of long, hard hours. Also, again predictably, calling-minded people tend to advance in their careers faster and further.

An even divide

These three mindsets apply to every type of job and were found across socio-economic backgrounds and income levels.

Wrzesniewski found millionaire doctors who fell into the “it’s only a job” category and found janitors who saw their work as a calling. Even within the same profession, about one-third of the people fell into each category. One study showed that of 24 administrative assistants earning approximately the same salary, with the same level of education, and similar job descriptions, each “work orientation” was equally represented.

It’s all in your head

What Wrzesniewski’s studies show is that the third orientation (work is a calling) is a mindset. Nothing more.

That’s bad news for those of you who think that the answer to finding happiness at work and making an impact in the world is to quit your job. For some of you, that might truly be the answer. For most of you, finding happiness at work and changing the world at work involves a simple mindset shift.

Simple? Yes, simple.

Simple in the sense that you’re not going to need any fancy tools or need to meet with an organizational psychologist to make the shift. But that doesn’t make this mindset shift easy. As you try to shift, voices will pop up telling you that you are wasting your time. They will tell you that you will never find happiness where you are and that your work is meaningless.

To change your work orientation from your work being only a job or career to a calling, follow the three steps below. When you perform these exercises, you can use them to overcome the negative voices as well.


3 steps to finding your calling right where you are


1. Rewrite your job description

Make your job description your “calling description.”

How would you describe your job to someone else in a way that would make them want to quit what they do and try to steal your job?

What kind of an impact are you having?

How do you make others feel?

What would be the negative repercussions of you not doing your job?

How is your job essential to the company?

Example: Let’s say that you are a housekeeper. Without you, the hotel would be a mess. No one can clean a room as well as you can. You know how to make it just right for the guests. When they walk into their clean room, with the crisp white sheets and sparkling bathroom, they feel safe and happy. They know that for the length of their stay, they don’t have to worry about cleaning because you’ve got them covered. Without a clean room, everything else in the hotel is irrelevant. No amount of smiling front desk staff, 200 channels, beautiful views, or fresh cookies in the lobby makes up for a dirty room.

2. Change your internal job title

Question: What’s your reaction to the word “operator?” Is it a warm, friendly, helpful voice on the other end? Probably not.

What about “Director of First Impressions?”

Many companies have changed traditional job descriptions to be more…well, descriptive of what the person performing the job actually does. They have removed labels with negative connotations and replaced them with positive ones.

That’s great if you work in a company like that. But what if you work in place where you are still “just an operator?”

Then change your internal job title. From now on, call yourself what you want to be called. When someone asks what you do, use your descriptive, self-chosen job title when you answer.

You are who you say you are.

Action item: Rewrite your job description and create an internal job title. Review them daily and start changing the language you use to describe your job.

3. Find the hidden purpose

Is there a true purpose to your job that you haven’t discovered?

Maybe it’s to be a mentor to the younger people on your team.

Maybe it’s to develop great relationships with your clients.

Or maybe it’s to learn a skill that you will use later in life.

I wish I had seen my jobs as a teenager this way. I worked at two jobs as a teenager: a golf course and a music store. At the golf course, I had access to what can best be defined as the “elite” in the Nashville area. Doctors, lawyers, CEOs, music executives, famous people. I was able to play golf with Vince Gill, R.E.M., the Gatlin Brothers, Clint Black, two Fortune 500 CEOs, and countless millionaires.

And guess how many of them I know today?

Zero. None of them.

Guess how many of them I wish I knew today?

At the record store, I learned sales. I didn’t know it at the time. I saw the sales part as the drudgery. I had a quota to hit every month and I usually cleared the quota by less than 3%.

The reality was that I could have sold three times as much and developed that skill more. I was given an opportunity to practice a lifelong skill and be paid for it! 

Instead of taking advantage of that opportunity, I didn’t see the purpose in it. And when I needed those skills years later as an entrepreneur, I had to learn them all over again. It was a painful process.

If all else fails, find the hidden purpose in your job. You never know who you might meet or what skill you might learn.

You can find meaning and purpose where you are right now. Make your job your calling…and reap the rewards.

Which of the three work orientations do you find yourself in? If “job” or “career,” what can you do to change that?

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