Take a Fresh Look at Stale Work

by Annemarie Estess

As coaches it’s a daily occurrence to hear our clients in a tussle match with their work.

‘Work feels pointless / draining / disappointing. But what else would be a better fit?’

If you’re thinking ‘Nailed it. That’s me.’ then it’s a good time to take stock.

We want to introduce you to three different orientations toward work as a job, a career, or a calling.

Work orientation offers a lens to look through as you level with yourself about what you’re expecting of work – and how you’re showing up for it. It also nudges you to zoom out and evaluate work in the context of your life as a whole.

Let’s start by considering 3 people in 3 different roles within Rad Dad Company, Inc. (A company that, lest it wasn’t clear, I just made up. If it exists, I applaud you Rad Dads and would very much enjoy sporting one of your company T-Shirts.)

  1. Chief Operations Officer
  2. Creative Director
  3. Customer Service Specialist

Who do you assume views their work as a job, a career, or a calling?

A plethora of research shows that it has little to do with industry or paycheck, and instead is largely in the eye – and the actions – of the beholder.

Here is a quick n’ dirty rundown distinguishing a job, career and calling


  • Done primarily for the paycheck as a means to support other parts of your life
  • Would leave if something better came along
  • Wouldn’t choose it again if you could start over, or recommend it to others as fulfilling work


  • Feel invested in the growth trajectory and increased prestige
  • Identify with the work’s financial and social rewards
  • If the recognition and perks stopped, you would seek gratification and meaning elsewhere


  • Possess a passionate commitment to the work itself
  • View the work as contributing to a greater good
  • Would continue engaging in the work even if recognition and money subsided

Simmer on these distinctions. It may be tempting to judge jobs and careers as being inherently ‘worse’ than a calling.

We’ve certainly noticed something along those lines in the zeitgeist, fueling an expectation that we all should have figured out our ideal work by age 25. And that every job should feel like a calling.

But before we work ourselves into an existential panic, let’s kick the tires on that expectation.

What if it were okay for work to not be our primary source of meaning?

What if you’d actually feel more fulfilled at this stage not by jumping ship from your job, but by investing attention in other life arenas like friendships, family, and fun?

As a team leader, what might you tap into by honestly discussing your team members’ orientations toward their work?

The power of perspective and story

Let’s hop back to Rad Dad Company and those 3 employees. Their stories below illustrate the potential of consciously owning your work orientation and making the most of it, while still succeeding at the work itself.

Job: Creative Director

The work is a grind, but when he leaves for the day, he leaves. He solidly fulfills his job description at Rad Dad. He sees this as an opportunity to build up his savings and creative network, and eventually transition to starting his own furniture design company.

He’s grateful for the clear hours, makes the money he needs to live in the city and support a family, and has the leeway to pour himself into his furniture design on weekends.

Career: C.O.O.

She is proud of her rise up the ladder over the years through operational roles. She’s solid financially and satisfied by the job perks that help balance out its stressors. Now at the C-level, she’s unsure what to look forward to next. Social and intellectual connection, like conferences and company trips, are becoming the highlight reasons she stays in the role.

More and more she’s seeking reward from backpacking with her young kids, volunteering at her synagogue, and debating new ideas with friends (a nice intellectual change of pace from work) over dinners.

Calling: Customer Service Specialist

Every day at work is a chance to hear new customer stories. He never knows what odd scenarios might pop up, even keeping a “Hall of Fame” record of his trickiest conversations.

A Funny Guy at heart, he seeks to have customers eventually laughing on the other end of the line, with their problem solved and mood lifted. He will spend more time listening to them than the company regulations recommend, and he’s the go-to guy for escalated cases.

He often clocks extra hours, unpaid, dealing with tough situations. It’s a major tradeoff for his family, but they recognize it is because he’s so committed to improving his customers’ experiences. He cannot imagine working in a role that wasn’t people-centric. It’s his home base.

The big idea

The stories above reveal that while a professional calling is a stunning, enriching, consuming, fulfilling thing . . . it is not the only way to live a stunning, enriching, consuming, fulfilling life.

If you’re reading this and identifying more with the ‘job’ or ‘career’ zones, but feel like you’ve got a bright and bumpin’ life overall, thumbs up.

But if you’re just feeling stuck in a downward spiral of seemingly-pointless workdays, give yourself a fresh place to look. Where else in your life can you create enriching experiences and meaning?

If you DO feel ready to shift toward a work calling, here is key stuff to keep an eye on:

  1. Identify work that uses your signature strengths, ideally daily, and serves a greater good. (Seligman, p. 173)
  2. Craft the work (oooh, plot twist!) to intentionally make it more fulfilling. (Wrzesniewski, p. 282)

Job Crafting is such a cornerstone of meaningful work that we had to sing it from the rooftops in a separate piece.

Whatever role you’re in and aspiring to, appreciate the fact that work can satisfy many different things within the grand scheme of our lives. We don’t have to view it as a one-way ticket to Bummersville if it doesn’t satisfy everything at all times. Isn’t there some sweet relief in that?

We want to hear from you!

Have a tricky work situation? Want our perspective? Ask 20 Rock to be considered for our leadership support column: hello@20-rock.com

Works Cited

1 Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness, New York: Free Press, 2002. Print. pp 168–72

Wrzesniewski, Amy. LoBuglio, Nicholas. Dutton, Jane E., Berg, Justin M. (2013), Job Crafting and Cultivating Positive Meaning and Identity in Work, in Arnold B. Bakker (ed.) Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology (Advances in Positive Organizational Psychology, Volume 1) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 281–302