How do you look at your work?

Work is not simply work! Not all people look at it in the same way – it means different things to different people. It is interesting how organizational behaviour researchers study and understand how we relate to our work.

In the research paper [1] published by Amy Wrzesniewski, Clark McCauley, Paul Rozin and Barry Schwartz in 1997, they examine three ways in which we relate to our work. The original paper is a scientific publication and it describes their research with relevant statistical analysis and information. I am trying to simplify it and illustrate the work relations here.

There are three ways in which we relate to our work:

  1. Work As Job: The people who look at work as job primarily work for salary/paycheck and they do not have much personal involvement or fulfilment from the job.  Thus, they are only interested in the material benefits such as salary, insurance etc. from work and do not seek or receive any other type of reward from it.  For them, the work is not an expression of their purpose or source of personal fulfillment, but work is done primarily for the sake of something else – it allows them to afford the necessities & comforts needed to enjoy their time away from the Job. Their major interests and ambitions are not expressed through their work.
  2.  Work As Career: The people who look at work as career work not only for material benefits such as salary, insurance but also for advancement, achievements and status in their work. They have greater personal involvement in their work, and define their achievements not only through monetary gains but also by advancement/promotions in their profession. They look forward to climbing the hierarchical organizational ladder that their occupation offers. Their advancement often brings them more power, higher social-status and greater self-esteem.  As the later research by Amabile et al. revealed, they also seek challenges in their work making career primarily marked by challenges and advancement.
  3. Work As Calling: The people who look at work as calling primarily work because they find their work meaningful and immensely enjoy it. For them, their work is inseparable from their life. Those who look at work as calling work not for financial gain or career advancement, but instead for the fulfillment that doing the work brings to the individual. For them, the work is an integral part of their identity. Often, they believe that their calling is higher than their own self. You can see Zen Pencil’s illustration: The Calling[2].

Interestingly, the Job–Career–Calling distinction is not necessarily dependent upon occupation. Within any occupation, one could conceivably find individuals with all three kinds of relations to their work. As these researchers mention, they found the equal distribution of Job–Career–Calling work orientations among a small sample of 24 administrative assistants. In other words, it doesn’t matter if one is delivering e-commerce shipments or if one is working as a highly paid management consultant. What matters is how one perceives his/her work.

The following figure illustrates Job–Career–Calling work orientations:

Work as Job, Career or Calling
Work as Job, Career or Calling (Study by Amy Wrzesniewski et al.)

There are few more interesting insights from this study:

  • Nearly equal numbers of respondents viewed work as a Job, Career, or Calling. Thus, nearly one-third people fall into each orientation implying equal distribution of work orientation.
  • Predictably, Job and Calling are inversely related to each other.
  • In this study, Calling respondents were significantly better paid, better educated, and had occupations higher in both self-perceived status and objective prestige level as compared to Job and Career respondents.
  • Also, Calling respondents reported notably and significantly higher life and job satisfaction than Job and Career respondents.
  • Satisfaction with life and with work might be more dependent on how an employee sees his or her work than on income or occupational prestige.

The referred study briefly discusses work motivations: Intrinsic (challenges & enjoyment) and Extrinsic (compensation & outward orientation), but I am excluding them for this article and focusing on work orientation/relation alone, though they are related. I’d like to write about motivation sometime later in future as that topic is also close to my heart.

It is obvious that looking at work as Calling not only makes work more fulfilling, but also offers more life satisfaction and better health. However, it is important to note that Job and Career work orientations are equally common in people. The career respondents were the youngest of all the respondents, suggesting that younger employees might be willing to work harder than their older counterparts in order to advance within their organizations. It may also indicate an expectation held by younger employees that they will eventually move on to better positions. I think, at younger age some people might see their work more as Career with the hope & determination to advance, and at older age they may gravitate towards their Calling or may become resigned to having only a Job.

I have also known cases where individuals knew their Calling but chose Job and Career for a specific duration to take care of their liabilities before they could turn to their Callings. I think it is possible for a single individual to experience all these three work orientations/relations during his work life.  However, I also strongly believe that once an individual realizes his/her own Calling, he/she cannot look at his work merely as Job or Career for a long time. You might have read Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking Job and become a full-time writer. For him, his work as a postal mailman was a Job, whereas writing was his Calling. I recently met a young man who quit his software Job to follow his Calling in wildlife – he is enjoying his work with one wildlife magazine now.

What do you think? How do you look at your own work as of now: Job, Career or Calling? Has your perception changed over time? Do you know what is your Calling? If not, would you love to discover your own Calling? Have you already tried? I’d love to hear you stories. Do share your thoughts in the comments below.


[1] Research paper:  Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work by Amy Wrzesniewski, Clark McCauley, Paul Rozin and Barry Schwartz (1997).
[2] See beautiful illustration by Gavin Aung Than on Zen Pencils: The Calling with his own words.

The featured image: This photo shows workers working in paddy fields during monsoons.