Finding a calling within your job

In a previous post, I wrote about finding your purpose in multiple places, not just as defined by your career choices. Purpose is what drives you, gives your life meaning, and fuels your passion. Ideally, we would like to turn our passion into a job that pays the bills, but that isn’t always the case. So how do we create purpose within our existing jobs? That’s the focus of today’s post.

Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management, studies how people make meaning out of their work, even jobs that tend to be difficult or stigmatized. She studied the custodial staff at a local hospital and found that some of the participants defined their job as an essential part of the patient recovery process. In defining their jobs in this manner, they crafted their work around tasks that would not only help patients (e.g., by chatting with them to find out which chemicals were less irritating, seeking out patients who had few visitors, keeping in touch with patients after discharge), but also in a way that made their day to day job more meaningful for them. They didn’t just shift their attitude. They strategically created the job they wanted within the job they were given and reported greater levels of happiness in the process.

Don’t ask what the world needs.Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive–Howard Thurman.

I’ve written ad nauseum on this blog and on social media about discovering your top values and letting them guide you in your life choices. There’s a reason for that. In the study above, we can see this idea play out effectively. The workers redefined their job in terms of their values, and it had a dramatic impact. If you’ve been following me for awhile, you may have made a list of your top values. Now using those values, craft a definition for the word “meaningful.” Remember, meaningful is a personal choice–what’s meaningful for you is not necessarily what is meaningful for the status quo (though it could be). Write down your Meaningful Mission Statement and keep it in a planner or somewhere where you can refer to it easily. It should help guide your choices.

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Examining the shoulds

When you define your activities and career in terms of what is meaningful, you may run into situations where what you consider meaningful work clashes with what you (or others) think you “should” do. We are bombarded with shoulds early on in development, and those ideas are reinforced for us over time. Some of the shoulds are well-intentioned. We should be kind to others. We should brush our teeth. Most likely, these life rules fit well with how we want to live our lives. Others, however, make us feel like we are living life in a constricting box. It’s those shoulds that we should examine and question. If they are associated with self-doubt and fear, we need to realign them with our values. Write down those should statements. Figure out where they are coming from (e.g., family, society). And then see if they align with your mission statement. Writing them down this way gives you a sense of agency over these pesky self-doubts and helps you find a way to navigate through them.

Those who have a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how”–Viktor Frankl

There are many exercises that can help with the process of defining meaningful work. Once you make the decision to create a life aligned with values, it’s hard to go back to the way things were. Your passion leads you directly toward meaning. But the path isn’t always straight. Obstacles like old thoughts and habits can get in the way, and overcoming them only strengthens the meaning. Remember, your purpose is your North Star, and your values are your toolkit to help you get there. Gather support from friends, family, coach, or therapist, and find your way.

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