In an earlier post I wrote about the distinctions between a job, a career, and a calling. In any given profession it is possible to find people evenly distributed among the three different classifications.
To summarise, if you see your work as a job, your focus is on financial rewards and necessity rather than pleasure or fulfilment. A job in itself is unlikely a major positive part of your life. If you consider yourself having a career, you are focused on advancement and what comes with it: power over others, status, higher paycheck, and other similar benefits. A calling, on the other hand, is characterised by work that you consider socially useful, and derive enjoyment and fulfilment from. (1)
In this post I want to focus specifically on the notion of careers. Open up Brazen Careerist – a website aimed at 20-somethings and recent graduates looking for career advice – and you see headlines like “Why Success Can be Dangerous for Your Career,” “Careers That Work Best If You Have Multiple Passions,” “Is Gen Y Delusional About How to Have a Successful Career,” “Why Being Selfish is the Best Way to Get Ahead in Your Career” etc.
If the website is to be believed, having a career is something good, something we all should aspire to. But why? I mean really; why should you concentrate on building a career in the first place?
The way I see it, a career is means to an end. Or at least it should be. But many people I know have turned their careers into end goals. They have bought into the notion that success and happiness in life is related to their ranking in an arbitrary man-made hierarchy: a CEO is better than a vice-president, a vice-president is better than a general manager, a general manager is better than a department lead, and so on. Not to forget that the one with the most toys in the end wins.
When you are single-mindedly focused on your career, the things that are more likely to actually make life worth living become secondary. Epicurus identified friendship, freedom (from the whims and requirements posed on us by others and the norms of the society), and thought (analysed life) to be the pillars of a life well lived. There are no luxuries or prestigious positions in that list: “…expensive objects can feel like plausible solutions to needs we don’t understand. Objects mimic in material dimension what we require in psychological one. … We buy a cashmere cardigan as a substitute for the counsel of friends.” (2)
Now some 2200 years after the times of Epicurus, the positive psychology movement has come up with scientific evidence of what makes people flourish. The list includes things such as involvement in flow activities, experiencing mental pleasures, experiencing renewable physical pleasures, close social relationships, pursuing goals that are intrinsically motivated, and using and growing one’s character strengths. (3, 4)
These are not exactly new findings. Many of the questions concerning how to live a good life have been answered hundreds of years ago. What the scientific method is giving us now is validation. For example, the last two items on the above list can be traced all the way back to Aristotle, according to whom true happiness was identifying one’s virtues, cultivating them, and living in accordance with them. (5)
Advancement is an integral part in career-thinking. If you are not moving forward, you do not have a career. Most companies are pretty decent at estimating how well you can handle a higher-level job before giving you a promotion, but only you can tell whether or not you will actually enjoy it. It is not rare to hear of people who could have moved forward in their careers, but realised that it would come at a cost in their happiness. Pursuing a career is not the same as pursuing life satisfaction or subjective well-being, and we should stop pretending it is.
My intent with this article is not to say that all careers are automatically bad, but to get you question your assumptions about what a career is and why you should pursue one. It can be a source of great satisfaction, but also a source of great distress. To make it the former rather than the latter, it should be in accordance to the aspects of living a good life. Here are some helpful questions:
- Do you feel in flow (the state where you are so immersed in what you do that you lose sense of time, and even yourself) at work? How often?
- How often do you get positive feelings at work, compared to negative ones? The ratio should not be less than 3 positive feelings for each negative one, and the higher the better.
- Are you close with your coworkers? Do you also cultivate friendship outside the workplace?
- Are you able to use your strengths and pursue your interests in your work?
Lastly, there is ample evidence showing that those who enjoy extraordinary career success are usually the people who derive great life satisfaction from the work they do: “They willfully migrate toward positions that fit their natural strengths and passions and where they can work with people they like and respect.” (6) Overall psychological well-being has been found to be much better predictor of job performance than job satisfaction, and one should also consider the groundbreaking study lead by Sonja Lyubomirsky that showed that in the long-term, career success follows from happiness and well-being, but success alone is not enough to cause lasting happiness. (7, 8)
(1) Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C. R., Rozin, P, & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work. Journal of Research in Personality, Vol. 31, 21-33.
(2) de Botton, Alain (2000) The Consolations of Philosophy. Penguin Books.
(3) Diener, Ed (2000). Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index. American Psychologist, Vol. 55, No. 1, 34-43.
(4) Hodges, T. D., & Clifton, D. O. (2004). Strengths-Based Development in Practice. In: Linley, P. A., Joseph, S., & Seligman, M. E. P., ed. (2004). Positive Psychology in Practice. Wiley, 1 edition. Ch. 16.
(5) Peterson, Christopher (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology. [Kindle edition] Oxford University Press.
(6) Citrin, J. M., & Smith, R. A. (2003). The Five Patterns of Extraordinary Careers. [Kindle edition] Crown Business; 1 edition.
(7) Wright, Thomas A., Cropanzano, R. (2000). Psychological Well-Being and Job Satisfaction as Predictors of Job Performance. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 1, 84-94.
(8) Lyubomirsky, S., King, L., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 131, No. 6, 803– 855.