Job, career, or calling?

Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. Her ongoing research into how we can find more meaning in our work has led her to conclude that people view occupations in one of three ways: a job, a career, or a calling.

A job is something to endure just to get a salary.

A career is something that gives prestige or position within society.

A calling is work that you believe is part of your identity, something that gives you meaning in your life.

On the surface, those findings may not appear that surprising. You can probably name at least one person you know who fits into each category.

But where her research gets fascinating is that when asked whether they view their work as a job, a career, or a calling, the answers remain fairly consistent across every profession. Doctors, janitors, social workers, executive assistants, writers, construction workers, trash collectors, teachers—the percentage within each profession who view the work as a job, a career, or a calling is roughly the same. And the reason? Because we all can find meaning in the work that we do, no matter what kind of work it is.

That’s why a great restaurant server can transform the entire dining experience.

That’s why a doctor with a great bedside manner will likely have much better relationships with her patients.

That’s why a plumber who tells the truth and makes a recommendation for repairs in the best interest of the customer is a lot more likely to get referral business.

And that’s why one student can transform anything from a class, to a cross country team’s workout, to a club meeting, to an orchestra rehearsal.

The key to finding that meaning is not to ask, “How much can I get out of this for myself?” It’s to ask, “How can I improve this experience for everyone?”

Whether you’re attending a study group, a karate class, a drama rehearsal, or a part-time job at a frozen yogurt shop, what would it take for you to see that time as a calling? How could you bring more of your unique talents, energy, insights, and personality to make the experience better, not just for you, but for everyone?

Sure, there will always be roles, experiences, and jobs that we’re just not cut out to do. It’s hard to imagine any universe where I could call competitive high-jumping a calling given that I have absolutely no natural skills or interest in that area.

But while we don’t always get to choose what we’re doing, we do get to choose how we do it. And how you do it is what decides whether you’ll feel like you’re in a job, a career, or a calling.