May 27, 2012
Introspection is kind of a drag. It requires unpleasant acts like "thinking" and "talking about emotions," and it can rarely be done while watching TV.
But like it or not, more and more workers are taking time to reflect on what they do for a living, seeking jobs that aren't just a means to a paycheck but the fulfillment of some form of calling.
Back in the good old days, which was when Reagan or Clinton was president, depending on your political leanings, work was just work. You did it, you got paid, you came home and ate some food rich in high fructose corn syrup.
Now, people want more. They want to feel that their labor amounts to something; that they're somehow making a difference in the world.
But can this supposedly enlightening feeling that your career is "a calling" be a bad thing? (Hint: YES!)
I spoke with Teresa Cardador, an assistant professor in the school of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. She recently co-authored a paper in the Journal of Career Assessment (I read it for the comics) that reviewed research on people who find meaning and a sense of purpose in their work.
"There has become this idealized notion of work," Cardador said. "A lot of books and stories in the popular press capture this idea of an idealized orientation toward work. But there's increasing evidence that suggests that despite the perceived desirability, it's not always beneficial."
In a nutshell, what Cardador found is that people who view their work as a calling can get too wrapped up in the job, to the point where it becomes counterproductive.
Some people burn out — it's called "the fall from the call." Sometimes the person with the calling believes he or she is the only one qualified to handle the work, and that can cause strained relationships with co-workers. Also, the intense focus on work can be depleting, leaving a worker without enough energy to maintain good relationships outside the office.
So it's unbelievably horrible to love what you do, right?
"Callings can be healthy when individuals inspire and connect with others at work," Cardador said. "It can be healthy when you see the organization you work for as a vehicle for carrying out your calling, because then you become more invested in the organization."
So the key is to figure out whether you're embracing your career in a way that's healthy or unhealthy.
Cardador and her co-author, Brianna Caza, assistant professor of business at Wake Forest University, said people can do that by making sure that their work identity is not too rigid.
"We know that callings are closely related to personal identity," Cardador said. "We make the case that the flexibility of one's work identity is an important factor."
Between constantly evolving technology and downsizing that requires more of individual workers, it's critical that a worker accept the fact that her or his job tasks may not always be the same. We have to be nimble nowadays, even if certain tasks don't fit our idealized vision of the job.
The study said: "People with rigid work identities have a single way of viewing who they are and what they do at work and are unwilling or unable to bend this image to fit with the reality of their work situation. In so doing, they are less able to account for the needs and interests of others in the workplace."
Just because you feel passionate about what you do doesn't mean you can't do other things that contribute to the greater good of your organization. You have to step back and examine how you're handling your work, making sure, in the simplest of terms, that you're not unwittingly being a selfish jerk.
Besides, not everyone is going to find a workplace calling. People can drive themselves nuts searching for the ideal fit, when perhaps what they need is just a manageable work fit and a life outside the job that makes them happy.
"I think that building work up to be a calling can sometimes be a downfall when people figure out that they might enjoy their work, but it's not necessarily everything to them," said Caza. "They might be just as happy doing one of a number of other things. Rather than a relentless search for the one fulfilling profession, it's important to teach people to allow work to be meaningful in its own way to them."
In this introspective era, we're often guilted into thinking that work has to somehow be a defining element of life. I disagree.
We work, predominantly, because there are no money trees to harvest. The hope is that our labor lets us build the lives we want. If that comes with a feeling of fulfillment, fantastic.
If not, we do what we have to do.
And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
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