Happiness at Work: Our work as our Calling

Finding their calling – inspiring a generation

Take Away Line

We might feel that a calling is something that only the few have.  And there is some empirical evidence to support this idea.  Few of us feel we can alter our work or other circumstances.  But with care and attention we can alter our perspective on things and in so doing maximise our satisfaction.  The key to this is self-understanding.  Personal satisfaction at work is in part at least a result of our inner work to understand ourselves. For the calling to manifest, many of us have to dial in before we can call out.

Job, vocation, calling

One of the things I found myself thinking as the athletes sped down the track or excelled in whatever they were doing was: ‘well, they have natural talent and a special sense of this being their ‘thing’ – probably they’ve always known this is what they’ve wanted to do.  But, for most of us, we don’t really have that feeling of possessing a special gift.  It’s not like that for ‘normal’ people.  For most of us, we just stumble into things…’

Yale organisational psychologist, Amy Wrzesniewski, gave people’s attitudes to their work three headings: job, career and calling.  The clues are in the names: a job is when we are there for the money and have no particular loyalty to the job, to the organisation or to the end result of what we do. We are likely to leave for higher pay and we are likely to be dissatisfied easily at work.  It’s just a job; it pays the bills.

A career, by contrast is when our main goal is advancement, seeking position and prestige, perhaps honours or power.  When people are motivated in this way, they tend to invest heavily from a personal point of view.  While the results can be rewarding if they succeed, there is a strong risk of disappointment, if not exhaustion.

A calling, meanwhile, is when a person does the work pretty much for its own sake or a higher purpose.  People who feel they have a calling are said to tire less easily because what they do is more in tune with who they are and what they believe in.  If one has a calling, one is able to achieve satisfaction at work and maintain it.

A third, a third, a third

The really interesting part about this work is that the research showed that roughly a third of us are in each category.  Doubtless, many of us have mixed motivation and each individual case is complex: I am pleased to report that I feel my work is pretty much a calling related to social change, but it is important to me to be paid and to see some advancement along the way.  But, this third, third, third split is the same regardless of organisation type, country or position in the hierarchy.  Think about that: roughly a third of us are likely to be able to work with a reasonable level of satisfaction most of the time in a sustainable way.  And that also means that two-thirds of us are likely to experience high levels of job dissatisfaction at some point or other.

Can we manage our attitude and motivations about work to foster a greater sense of calling and, as a result, achieve higher levels of happiness?  Is it us or is it the work itself that’s the problem?

Round pegs in round holes

Regardless of how agreeable the work situation, a person’s attitude to work is critical to their satisfaction and also to the success of the enterprise of which they are a part.  In this sense ‘attitude’ can more or less be substituted by ‘relationship’.  Work is a relationship between oneself and the work itself, but also the people we work with and the ultimate purpose of the work we do.  When that relationship is meaningful in the sense that it connects with who we believe ourselves to be, then greater levels of satisfaction are likely to occur.  In this sense, we are a round peg in a round hole, a status that many of us can take some time to figure out.


For the Dalai Lama, this is fundamentally a question of self-understanding.  By developing a greater level of self-understanding in relation to work, we are more likely to achieve greater satisfaction at work – or a change of direction!  For him, there are two key steps: better understanding of our capabilities and developing a self-view that is more grounded in reality.

Understanding our capabilities is perhaps to a large extent a technical challenge and connects, for example, with Seligman’s work on signature skills: what is our offer to employers that fits best with who we are.  A clear understanding of our core skills and other attributes helps us assess better where and how they can be applied.

Developing a more robust self-view is also critical, in the Dalai Lama’s opinion.  To explain the point simply, he picks out one polarity for examination.  For some, there is a tendency to have relatively low self-esteem, while for others the tendency is an inflated sense of self.  Both are damaging and affect our work attitude and, ultimately our satisfaction at work – and in life more generally.  Coming to a more realistic sense of ourselves helps us relate better to our work and tune in to our calling.

Low self-esteem can be paralysing, preventing us from doing the things we want and of which we are capable.  By holding back our achievements, it limits our satisfaction at work and in life generally.  Greater self-understanding helps combat the fear and anxiety that lies behind low self-esteem.

An inflated self-view looks down from on high and is impatient with what it sees.  Hard to challenge, it’s a view that can lead to conflict with the world, a world that doesn’t quite match our view of what it should be.  Greater self-understanding, the Dalai Lama suggests, helps reduce the frustration that typically befalls a person with an inflated self-view.

Our Calling is Calling

Some of us are lucky and our calling is there from the start.  But for many of us, it’s a thing that only emerges slowly and we have to try at lot of things out first.  As the Dalai Lama points out, the key to both our attitudes at work now and to discerning our calling is largely (but not only) a process of inner reflection.

Debating Points

  1. Where are you on the job-career-calling spectrum?
  2. What do you need to do as part of your personal development to enhance self-understanding to connect better with your calling?

About transformingtales

What you do is what you do, isn't it? Nothing special there. What I do is work mainly with civil society organisations, but also some public and corporate sector outfits, to help them change. For the better. For good. If you provide a list of the things you do, the services you offer, like strategic planning, leadership development, corporate governance, culture change and performance management, they are just words. And tricky sounding words too that put you off and imply more questions than they answer. So, this blog is about the stories, the joys and the woes of making tranformative change happen (on a good day) and when and why it doesn't (on a bad day). And it's dedicated to my daughter who asked the question a few years ago: 'What do you do again, Dad?'
Gallery | This entry was posted in Change management, Civil Society, Coaching, Communications, Consulting, Employee engagement, Happiness at Work, Leadership, Leadership development, Well-being and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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