Cultivating a Career Calling

How do you “follow your passion” when it is unclear or is seemingly unconnected with what you understand about work? Paula Di Rita Wishart provides advice.

July 11, 2016

I recall sitting with a student in my office late one fall afternoon while he shared, with a great deal of trepidation, his decision to accept a job. I asked him what it was that drew him to the job. He could not say, but he did know the other option was staying in the abyss of not knowing what he wanted.

He expressed frustration with everyone telling him to follow his passion. For someone like myself, who uses the term “love” in relation to her work and is now 25 years into her passion quest, a passion framing around work resonates for me. But when I work with students who are early in their career path, that can be an ephemeral concept and often not meaningful in practical terms. How do you follow your passion? What if your passion is unclear or is seemingly unconnected with what you understand about work?

The idea of following your passion can be particularly loaded for graduate students. Often their engagement in their graduate degree and work began with a deep interest, commitment and intellectual capacity akin to a professional passion. But over time, with the refining and changing of a thesis topic and a shifting career target, this can erode, and the connecting threads between what they are studying and what they want to commit their life’s work to can get lost.

Let me start with this idea of our “life’s work.” We all seek work for different reasons. Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior at Yale University, and her colleagues have presented one really useful framing for our discussion. Their research has identified three orientations to work: job, career and calling. It is the calling orientation that seems to be connected most closely with this idea of passion. A calling is when you feel drawn to do a certain type of work and you feel personally and strongly tied to your work. On the other end of the spectrum, someone with a job orientation sees work primarily as a means for financial gain. A career orientation is when you think of work in terms of the next step or the next promotion.

There is evidence that those who have a calling orientation toward work have greater job satisfaction. There is also evidence that our orientation is not solely based on professional status or dependent on the type or level of work we do. Those who have a calling orientation to their work cross all types and levels of jobs. Those who have a calling orientation have a sense they are doing the work they are supposed to do. This is where I think passion comes into view.

Given that framing, people often think their passion will present itself in some inevitable way. Everyone tells students “follow your passion,” as if that statement makes it all clear. The thinking is that if the work you are meant to do is so closely related to who you are, shouldn’t it be self-evident?

But, in my experience, that is not so. Finding your passion is a discovery process, and you need to foster this understanding of yourself. I am not talking about a big bang moment of self-understanding but rather the kind of self-understanding that grows over time as you mature into who you are to become professionally -- the deep ease that comes over time as you progress in a career path that seems more and more a fit.

However, as we go through our academic training and move through our career path, everyday realities sometimes overwhelm the sound of our calling. We have to listen carefully, tease out and nurture our own professional voice and mission so that it does not get drowned out by the drone of uninteresting tasks that need to get done, or the needs of others who do not know how we are called to engage in our work.

Those who are most successful at navigating a personally meaningful career path learn to cultivate a practice of discerning the work they are drawn to. I would like to share with you some solid practices for cultivating this type of discernment on a daily basis. (Or maybe a weekly one -- no pressure!)

Notice decisions because they are clues to who you are. When we make a choice, our values are embedded in that moment. Begin to notice and dissect the decisions you are making, from the classes you choose to the groups you associate with.

Whenever I feel a pull during a decision point, I ask myself what is compelling me to make this choice. Why did I make one decision and not another? What does that decision say about who I am and what matters to me? How should this inform other choices I am making? If you do this, you will find that you become more intentional about investing your values into your decision making over time, and that will increasingly inform your career choices and clarify the patterns of your interest.

Get deeply detailed on the things that you are for in this world. What tasks are you drawn to without others bidding you to do them? What thing, person, place, situation or outcomes do you advocate for regularly? Start thinking about that now and capturing it, because it will inform what you want your work to be about. I call this your “to statement.” If you want your work “to help people,” then ask what type of people? Where would I help them? What would I be doing? Commit to shaping your to statement every single day using what and with whom you interacted with in that day to inform that shaping. If you had a debate with a peer, were drawn to a topic in a class or had a conversation with a mentor, what did that do to inform that thing you are for? Keep a visual representation in words or pictures on your wall or desktop and work on it for 10 minutes every day. Patterns will begin to emerge.

Say aloud to others what you are considering. We fear that if we make a statement about what we think we know about our career interests, it will become some irreversible truth -- or, worse yet, we may be wrong. You will come to have certainty in a broader context over time, but the necessary part of career decision making is to actively engage in the exploratory, evidence-gathering part of the process. This requires that you let others know what you are exploring to test out these things you think you know about yourself. You will develop a clearer sense of yourself and your goals as you begin to explore them in conversation with other people, and they will be able to help you in that process. Try out what it feels to say your interests aloud. Do they still resonate for you when you do?

Don’t wait to arrive. You have arrived somewhere at all times. Spend some time learning the lessons from where you are right now. If you focus on the tasks and roles you are currently engaged in and how they inform your thinking, you will start to develop a constant state of arrival, and your everyday commitments will become more satisfying and meaningful. You will also begin to seek out those things within the context of what you are doing that have meaning. Even if the entire task or commitment is not meaningful, you will begin to find those things that do inform and cultivate your interests.

Write down things that deeply matter when you discover them, or they will become obscured with time. You would never write a dissertation or a paper in your head, because you know that you could not retain that information in any meaningful way and important information would be lost. Moreover, the act of writing is a conversation with yourself that allows you to react to what you have learned, refine your thinking and hone your perspective. The written piece becomes an essential artifact of that conversation. If you write down what you have discovered, you will move through the precipices of your career decision making without having to retread old ground, and you will begin to see the pattern of a path more clearly.

As I think back to that student in my office, I recall that he shared how personally demoralizing it can feel when someone tells you to “follow your passion” and you don’t know how to find that thing to follow. I suggested how he might consider using these methods in the job he was about to embark on to help shape his next steps. We discussed together the reality that the discovery of our passion as it relates to our career is not external entity waiting to appear before us. It is an internal process that we can cultivate on a daily basis -- one that takes time.


Paula Di Rita Wishart is an assistant dean in the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts.


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