Let me start with an inescapable reality: the American workplace is changing. Not just for those of us nearing retirement—but for those in midcareer and new hires as well. There’s a harsh and dramatic shift under way, from expected security to an unpredictable volatility. Technology is rendering entire careers extinct, and global competition is forcing companies to shed workers and cut costs to the bone.
Most of us were raised to think that all we needed to achieve success and security was to finish school, get a job with the right company, put in 35 years or so, and wait for the proverbial gold watch. But those days are over, never to return. In today’s volatile workplace, the average job lasts a mere 3.2 years. Companies are dismantling pension plans, cutting health insurance benefits, and replacing the gold watch with a pink slip. Which leads to a second inescapable reality: in a workplace where jobs come and go like feathers in the breeze, we must have a sense of continuity in our lives that goes far beyond our daily job. To be continually focused on a job as the source for meaning and identity is ultimately frustrating. A job is simply one tool for a successful life.
As a career and life coach and the host of a weekly radio show, I hear from listeners desiring more focused, balanced, and truly successful lives as they mature in age and life experience. More and more, people are coming to me with questions regarding surprising, often unwelcome changes in the workplace. A few months ago I received a letter from a woman in Detroit, who wrote:
We desperately need your advice, if possible.... My husband has been offered a buyout from General Motors to leave a job that he really hates! We just returned from North Carolina, where we looked into buying a business. We found a suitable place, and I am very excited, but he is reluctant to leave a decent-paying job with decent benefits.… Any advice?? By the way, he has to make his decision by May 19th! His last day to work for GM would then be July 1st, and he would receive $140,000, before taxes, four weeks later.
Thanks for your help.
Author, artist, and poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.” So, what role has work been serving for this gentleman? Is it “love made visible”? Or is it nothing but a method of paying the bills? What would you do in this situation? This person is in a job “that he really hates” and has an opportunity to be paid $140,000 to leave? My advice: Take the money immediately before the opportunity goes away. What a privilege to be allowed to escape a job that provides little beyond a paycheck, and to be given the start-up capital for a new business—and a new season in life. In our desire to be responsible or practical, we often deprive ourselves of the chance to embrace our talents and gifts, to recognize our visions, dreams, and passions. Being in a job you hate never makes sense as a long-term plan. And to already have a clear plan about a business that he would enjoy means this gentleman is not only leaving unfulfilling work—he is moving toward work that is worthwhile and meaningful.
Ask yourself: How do you view your work? Is it an expression of your deepest passions, or is it simply a necessary evil that produces a paycheck? How have you responded to those times of unexpected change in your life—did you welcome the opportunity to take a fresh look at where you are and where you’re going? Now hold on to that thought. Could your wisdom and experience lead to more fulfilling work that embraces and expands your talents and passions?
Let me introduce an image that should give you confidence to pursue that fulfillment. Picture a ladder with three steps: the top step represents your Vocation; the middle step is your Career; on the very bottom is your Job. Rather than seeing these as equal terms, we need to understand the distinctions.
Vocation is the biggest concept. This incorporates your purpose, your mission, and your calling. It’s certainly the most profound of the terms. It comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to call.” Your vocation is what you’re doing in life that makes a difference. It’s something unique to you alone, and it will define your legacy. This is going to be your best vehicle for fulfillment, a sense of peace, and accomplishment. Your vocation is the beacon in your life that keeps you headed in the right direction even when you are being tossed around by fate.
As novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Ask yourself: What is the world hungering for right now? How can you use your unique skills and talents to satisfy that hunger?