This story of calling is one of many that can be found in the book Make Your Job a Calling. We’ll post more excerpts here from time to time, but we hope you’ll share your stories of calling with us as well.
Sheryl, one of our counseling clients, was in the middle of a successful career as an electrical engineer. She was paid well, had been promoted twice, and was now beginning to manage projects—but she was miserable. For one thing, her recent move to project manager had not gone smoothly. She clashed with coworkers and felt little control or support when problems came up that needed solving. It was stressful. For another thing, the project manager role gave her a reason to take a step back and look at the big picture of what she was doing with her work. Her company specialized in developing innovative, high-end speaker systems, and the work rang hollow to her. “In the grand scheme of things, I just don’t feel like what I’m doing is really making a difference. I want to wake up in the morning eager to go to work, spend the day excited about what I’m doing, and at the end of the day I want to look at myself in the mirror and feel like what I did that day mattered. I have never thought of my work as a calling, but that’s exactly what I long for. How can I find it?”
Sheryl began with an informal assessment of her gifts and also took a battery of tests. Her interest profile suggested that she enjoyed mechanical and intellectual tasks, especially those that provided an outlet for creative self-expression. Her personality scores suggested that she was extremely conscientious, open to experience, and neurotic; she had an average level of agreeableness and was not very extroverted. Her profile of abilities suggested that she was adept at reasoning with numbers and accurately understanding and mentally manipulating spatial patterns. She mentioned that she could write well, which was consistent with a very high verbal-ability score. Her values suggested that it was most important for her to have a feeling of accomplishment on the job, to have a chance to try out her own ideas, to have support from her supervisors, and to feel like her work benefited others.
The mismatch between her gifts and what she was doing in her current job started to become clear for Sheryl as we talked through all this. Engineering fit well for her as a profession—indeed, she loved her current job when she first started—but the project manager role didn’t feel right from the start. She had to give up some of the hands-on work she loved to focus on the tasks of managing people (which, she quickly found out, she didn’t love); hence, her interests were not well satisfied. Her high neuroticism meant she was highly vulnerable to job-related stress (of which she had a lot), and her low extraversion did not make it any easier to manage people the way she felt she must. Her abilities were partially satisfied: she could map out well what needed to be done, and her written reports were outstanding, but when challenges arose or her coworkers’ performance wasn’t up to par, relationships quickly became strained and she felt overwhelmed and unable to handle it. Her values? In theory she should have felt like she was accomplishing things, but because her team members were doing the nuts and bolts of the projects, she felt a step removed from the work itself. Her ideas were sometimes challenged by know-it-all coworkers, and although she felt supported when she was a subordinate, as a project manager she felt more or less on her own.
Questions followed. What now? Should she ask her company to move her back into a staff engineer role, possibly closing herself off from future promotions? Should she try to obtain some training and support to make the manager role work? Or should she consider starting over at another company? Maybe her current misery was telling her that another occupation altogether might be a better fit—something in medical science, for example, or technical writing, two possibilities that her test results suggested, along with engineering. Here we run into the limits of processing the parameters of personal fit, of looking only at the role of actor as a level of analysis. Sheryl said she longed for a sense of calling. What is her work all about, in an ultimate sense? How does her work fit in the broader context of her life, and with her broader sense of purpose? How does it contribute to the world around her? What kinds of needs in the world matter to her and beckon for her attention? Such questions require a more expansive approach to looking at the problem.
If you want hear how Sheryl’s story ends, check out the book Make Your Job a Calling, where it’s covered in much more detail.