A Career vs. A Calling

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Every college graduate faces this same unknown upon graduating: How can I begin my career?

The last few weeks of college produce a rush of events. With long-term deadlines expiring in rat-a-tat-tat fashion, students push themselves at the end of their final term as if on autopilot. Their Spartan goal is to just survive from one deadline to another. Decision making becomes autonomous. They focus on “the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B” (with “Point B” almost always being walking across the stage to receive the coveted diploma).

In all this confusion, there comes a moment when the student thinks “did I fire six shots or only five?” In other words, and in a translation those not acquainted with the Eastwood canon might recognize: “Did I forget to unplug the iron?” With everything complete, there’s a few days respite before graduation when the student has a chance to breathe. That’s when there’s finally time for the student to assess things. That’s when the gnawing feeling that they forget something important takes hold.

Immediately after the celebration of graduation ends, there’s a temptation to view the river of life not as the tranquil Mississippi, but as the fast-moving white water of the Colorado. There’s no looking back. It’s full speed ahead, despite the ever present torpedoes. Gotta get a job. Gotta get on the first rung of the career ladder.

It is precisely at this instant that uncertainty rears its ugly head. Mind you, it’s always been there, looming like a Damocles Sword, but the incessant rush of deadlines provided a useful distraction. Now, as the mind clears itself of all those term papers, research projects, and oral presentations, the dissipating clouds reveal the devil of uncertainty: “What comes next? How do I begin my career?”

This is where the next decision can determine the rest of your life. This is where newly minted graduates, fearing they’ll be left behind on their preferred career path, make the quick decision. It may be the right decision. More often, though, it’s simply the easiest decision.

Why could accepting a job – any job – represent the wrong decision? Because young graduates tend to focus on the wrong objective. They’re thinking “career” when they should be thinking “calling.” What’s the difference? A career gives you monetary rewards. A calling yields psychological (a.k.a. spiritual) rewards. One feeds your stomach, the other feeds your soul.

Reflect on this for a moment. There’s a broad smorgasbord available to fill your stomach. There are so many choices, and, in fact, so many good choices. Moreover, life constantly replenishes this table. Good choices are always available.

For the perfect choice, though, sometimes you need to wait. When it comes to your soul, you don’t have as many options. There’s only one, maybe two, ideal visions you have. Without any constraints, you would pursue one of these. It is this preferred choice that represents your calling.

Jim Collins, author of the bestselling book Good to Great, identifies what he calls the “Hedgehog Concept.” He derives this term from an old Greek story comparing a fox – who knows one fact about all things – to a hedgehog – who knows all about one thing. The Hedgehog Concept can be likened to your calling. Collins describes the Hedgehog Concept as the intersection of these three circles: 1) What can you be the best in the world at? 2) What drives your economic engine? and, 3) What are you deeply passionate about? Collins created the Hedgehog Concept to help companies go from “good to great.” We can just as easily apply the Hedgehog Concept to our own individual lives. Let’s examine these three questions in this light.

What Can You Be the Best in the World at? OK, I have to admit it. This sounds like an impossible goal. Perhaps, but it remains the ideal to shoot for. Start with something you’re really good at. It may be hard because colleges aren’t designed for most to discover this (unless you’re an academic, an athlete, or undertaking vocational studies). What you’re really looking for here is something that differentiates you from your peers. There might have been a particular class, activity, or club you accelerated in. Because college requires you to act like a fox rather than a hedgehog, you may not yet have achieved your full potential in something you’re good at. At this point, it makes sense just to take inventory. I took my inventory when I was a senior in college. Besides astronomy, I listed computer programming, math, technical writing, voice acting, event organizing, communications, and creative entertainment in my inventory of “things I thought I might be pretty good at.”

What Drives Your Economic Engine? This is where the rubber meets the road. In the corporate world, this question focuses on sustaining robust margins, cash flow, and profitability. In the personal world, this translates to compensation. In combining these first two circles, while you can be the “best” (or really good at) several things, what matters is whether those things can pay you enough money to put food on the table. By the time I was ready to graduate, I knew I had talent in several marketable areas. For example, I was offered a paid fellowship for astronomy. In addition, I could have continued as an AM disc jockey or gone into some technical field. Both of those represented specialty fields. As an alternative, I could have gone in a field that combined both those talents – communicating technical concepts to non-technical people. It turned out this was the most lucrative route and that’s the one I initially chose.

What Are You Deeply Passionate About? Through most of history, people worked because they had to. During the era of the agricultural economy, they worked in order to grow the food they needed to eat. Times haven’t changed. While we might not farm, we still need to work in order to earn money to buy the food we need to eat. Many jobs pay enough money for you to buy food to eat. Which job offers you a chance to work in a field that excites you now and is capable of exciting you every day for the rest of your life? Unless you’re intend on becoming a full-time academic, take a look at your extracurricular activities. That’s where you’ll find your passion. That’s where I found mine. I always thought astronomy was my passion. Don’t get me wrong. I like astronomy. I declined pursuing a PhD in astronomy, however, because the summation of all my extracurricular activities told me my passion took me in a different direction. The easy decision for me as a senior in college was to go to graduate school. That would have set my life on a different course, one farther away from my calling. I didn’t know what I could be the best in the world at, but I knew what I was good at, and that’s the direction I went. It was a very general direction, but at least I knew I was moving in a direction that took me closer to my calling.

Combing the Three Circles to Determine Your Calling. It turned out my passion wasn’t astronomical research, but it was in sharing knowledge with people in a meaningful and entertaining manner. I took this passion and accepted a job in New York City as a technical liaison. The job had me explaining technical concepts to customers. It was a position not many could fill, but I was the rare college graduate that could. It was a support position, which meant it would be the first eliminated when times got tough. Time got tough in the Great Recession (actually double dip recession) of 1980-1982. Unfortunately, I was laid off before I graduated.

Did I say “unfortunately”?

Let’s look at it another way. Once you embark on a career, you board a train on the career track. Your path is well defined and the destinations are pre-determined. A calling, in the other hand, is like a walk in the woods. There may be a loosely defined path, but nothing prevents you from exploring a new direction.

Many students take jobs because they think a career is the same thing as a calling. They falsely believe they can merely switch trains in mid-career and point themselves to a different destination. While possible, this is not an easy task. Throw in student debt, a mortgage, and a young, growing family and you’ll quickly discover the uncertainty of a mid-life career switch represents a huge gamble. It’s often too risky to take, and you remain on the “temporary” train you boarded when you graduated from college.

Had I taken that New York City job, it would have been more difficult to realize my true calling: to raise a family in the Greater Western New York region. At the time, I assumed I would move back to settle down. Based on the real lives of my peers, I’ve now seen how unlikely this would have been. As a college senior, when I initially made the decision, I was confused between a career and a calling. In retrospect, it was fortunate for me that I was laid off from that New York City job. It’s one of those It’s A Wonderful Life lessons.

Parents may not want to hear this, but for many college graduates, it’s better to take a “time out” rather than hurry into a job that moves you in a direction opposite your calling. This doesn’t mean not taking any job. It means not confusing your first job with a career. It means taking the job that moves you one step closer to your calling. Eventually, you’ll find the career track that is your calling.

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