Finding your calling

Finding Your Calling

The Meaning of Work, Part 5

By Andrea Jacques

In this final installment on the meaning of work, I explore the words that describe the work people most long for – calling, vocation, purpose, and mission — and how even they can cause barriers to pursuing, achieving and sustaining meaningful work.

Vocation/ Calling:

Vocation and calling are often used interchangeably because they have similar definitions. Vocation is defined as a strong desire to spend your life doing a certain kind of work and calling as a strong inner impulse toward a course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence. Both are heavily associated with religious work, but have also come to be used to describe meaningful work.

Finding your calling is appealing because it promises to bring a sense of certainty, passion and conviction that most people lack in their work. Unfortunately, the concepts of desire, duty and divine influence that “calling” implies can leave you with the nagging sense of doubt that you’re missing out if you aren’t unquestioningly passionate about every part of your work every single minute of the day.

Chasing after these strong emotions and convictions is a wild goose chase, because even people who have found their calling can recall days where they were just going through the motions or even questioned their path. This questionning, in fact, is part of the path to finding your true purpose and calling. Work that is meaningful and fulfilling is bound to be challenging at times. When the work you do does not cause you to grow, learn and challenge yourself, it also ceases to engage and inspire you.

Since so many religions portray the divine as a power outside of oneself, the desire for divine inspiration to guide you towards meaningful work can be counterproductive. Why? If you are focused on listening for divine guidance, you are going to be less tuned in to your own internal guidance, a critical factor in not only finding but sustaining fulfilling work.

A related quest involves seeking your mission in life. Defined as, a specific task with which a person or group is charged, this word is strongly associated with the military. Perhaps more so than calling and vocation, this word carries strong implications of a directive handed down from an authority outside yourself. In the case of the military, the pursuit of one’s mission also involves blind obedience and the willingness to trust in the ethics of one’s superiors. While you might think that a big part of the reason that you are dissatisfied with your work is because you don’t trust your leaders’ motives for the “missions” with which you are being tasked, take a moment to consider why this hierarchical model of command and control in organizations has stuck with us for so long.

As many people who have experimented with the entrepreneur path and gone back to corporate life can attest, it can be much less stressful to sit back and wait for others to direct you. Not only can you abdicate the effort of charting your own path, you can complain about their bad choices and delude yourself that you have no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. At a deeper level, however, you know this isn’t true. This disconnect between your desire to be involved in something truly greater than yourself and your desire to stay safe and comfortable is what keeps you feeling like there is something missing. It takes courage to chart your own path, accept the consequences of your actions, and risk being the leader whose actions are being judged by others.


Translated as life purpose or reason for living, this Japanese word comes closer to bringing together the ideas of mission, calling and vocation and infusing them with the energy of an internally driven sense of passion and purpose. It is also less daunting than the concept of calling, as a person’s ikigai need not be huge and world changing. Grandchildren, a hobby, helping friends in the community and the humblest of jobs can all contribute to an ikigai that brings meaning to life and contributes to the world around you, even though they aren’t likely to make the six o’clock news.

The Real Meaning of Work

At a fundamental level, work is simply the effort to do or make something, so the key to finding a word that properly expresses what our soul desires from our work is to ask, “What is it we are ultimately exerting effort to make?”

The truth is that work is not about making stuff or providing services. Whether you are making donuts or electric cars, work at its finest is about our efforts to make and remake ourselves. Work has the power to make or break us precisely because the choices we make about why we work, how we work, and whose mission we choose to be in service to are as much about how we create ourselves as they are about how we impact our world.

Embrace Awareness

Awareness is the first step is the first step towards creating a life worth living and doing work that matters. You might be tempted to think that it is navel-gazing to contemplate definitions of the various words we use for work, but history has long shown that words have power. The words we use – whether we use them consciously or unconsciously – define our identity as well as our actions. As awareness increases, you will naturally become more conscious of not only what you are doing or creating, but why it is being created and how much value it is bringing to the world. This awareness will eventually cause you to make different choices.

With deepening awareness, you become aware that your choice to work for a boss or a company that is oppressive or unethical is an opportunity for you to look at how and why you oppress yourself. When you allow yourself to become conscious that the role of the oppressed seems easier, safer and more comfortable than the role of the leader, entrepreneur or change-maker you claim you want to be, you are one step closer to breaking free of the ways you limit yourself.

When you begin to understand that your addiction to coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, power, money, shopping, sex, or control are all ways to numb yourself to your dawning realization that your work could be doing more harm than good, you move closer to releasing the power your addictions have to distract you from finding and expressing your authentic self in the world.

Discipline creates freedom

Fulfilling work will forever elude you if you rely on other people and their systems to provide the structure that you refuse to impose on yourself. Being an entrepreneur gives freedom, but successful entrepreneurs choose to give up many things voluntarily in the short term to pursue their goals of freedom, autonomy and mastery over the long term.

The truth is that you can’t have it all and have it now. There are always tradeoffs and compromises. There is no magic pill that comes with the discovery of your purpose, calling, career or profession. The good news? Becoming more conscious of how you think and talk about work is all that you need to do to change what you get out of it. Like Dorothy’s red shoes, you always had exactly what you needed to go home.

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