Do What You Love – If You Can

An Unfulfilled Calling Can Be Bad for Business and Your Health

amazing-736888_640(1)When I was knee deep in career change hell, I often sought the advice of career gurus like Penelope Trunk. While I loved her content and her straightforward, kick-you-in-the-tail style, I felt like this woman would probably hate me. She wrote a compelling article arguing that “doing what you love” was one of the worst pieces of career advice you could ever get, and I was wearing the Life is Good t-shirt—literally. She feels the same about going to graduate school and even wrote an article about “crushing” defenders of this path. Oh, well. I had a J.D., and was considering going back to get a Ph.D. But the lost earnings! The cost-benefit ratio!

All great points. But some things just don’t work that way. After almost a decade of trying to reason myself out of it, I still wanted to be a psychologist. And from what I had learned, the only way for me to do everything I wanted  – scientific research, treatment,  assessment, college teaching, program evaluation and administration – was to get a Ph.D. A master’s degree or a coaching certificate weren’t going to cut it. And because it was a research-based degree – minus the opportunity costs – it would be funded by the university.

And Penelope was the least of my worries.  I lost count of how many times that friends and family gave me their two cents. They called me “crazy” or “stupid” or the creative “crazy stupid.” Here’s how it would go. Concerned family member: “Why would you give up all of that money? The lifestyle?” Me: “I absolutely hate it.” Family member: “So what, everyone hates their job, but most people don’t get paid that much money to hate it.” Um. Wait. What? Can we play name that logical fallacy now? Or my attorney friends: “Just drink the Kool-Aid and deal with six figures. You are cramping my style.” (F-bombs and other expletives omitted). Well, I did crazy stupid anyway—and I have absolutely no regrets.

So, when I read a recent journal article from the University of South Florida, I must say I did feel vindicated. The authors’ findings confirmed prior results that people who believe in viewing work as a calling and those who follow their calling in work have better outcomes in life that don’t. But the researchers for this study – Michele Gazica and Paul Spector – extended this research to see if there was a difference between those people who had never believed they had a calling and those who believed in one but never pursued it. A hint: the answer is that it depends on many factors —the most important of which is you.

The authors split the sample of university faculty (Ms. Trunk would be smiling now—but similar results have been found in other groups) into two groups based on their initial responses: those with (1) a higher sense of  calling that was not fulfilled, (2) a higher sense of calling that was fulfilled, and (3) no strong sense of calling either way. Next, the authors compared the three groups on their feedback on a range of outcome measures—work engagement, career commitment, and life satisfaction.

The results were consistent with prediction. Those who had fulfilled their calling were better off than the no-calling group, and both the fulfilled calling and no-calling group were better off those with unfulfilled calling. The unfulfilled group also had the worse outcomes in terms of physical and psychological distress. It’s worth noting that because their study was cross-sectional, these results do not mean that having an unfulfilled career calling causes worse outcomes—but there is a relationship. Further longitudinal research is needed to verify these results.

As the authors note, the study results are consistent with self-determination theory. Self-determination theory centers on the belief that:

  • all of us have innate psychological needs (e.g., competence, autonomy, relatedness) that form the basis for our motivation, and
  • people who are able to fulfill their basic psychological needs have better outcomes—in terms of “psychological growth, functioning, and well-being.”

So, deciding whether it’s better to follow your calling or go to graduate school is not a one-size-fits-all decision. It depends on many factors—the most important of which is what you need. And it’s more than that—it’s what you believe you need that will affect your outcomes the most. As my graduate advisor always told me about working with clients with traumatic beliefs—“there is no such thing as magic, but there is magic in belief.” And it works both ways – for better or worse.

“There is no such thing as magic, but there is magic in belief.”

Do you believe that work can be a calling? Do you believe you have one? Do you feel that your current job or career fulfills that need? What could you do today to make your work more meaningful? Leave me a comment.