January 10, 2004

Work, Career, or Calling?

When he was asked what do you do for a living, the Dalai Lama replied "Nothing."

From what I have read, I think the Dalai Lama sees his activities as his calling, so of course, he might feel that it is not his occupation or living.

In the book "The Art of Happiness at Work", the Dalai Lama describes three categories of (or approaches towards) employment. These three categories are "job", "career" or "calling".

These three terms are defined as follows:

A job is something you do because you are paid to do it. Your interest in this occupation is primarily monetary, and you do not identify with it very much, if at all.

A career is a progression of occupations which are related or similar in nature, and you have taken a conscious effort to stay in a particular line of work. You see your occupation in terms of personal advancement, perhaps more in terms of power or responsibility than in terms of money. Title, pride, and importance are significant factors.

A calling is some activity that you believe in strongly for it's own inherent value. You may feel that this occupation helps others or makes some significant difference in the world somehow. A calling is something you might even do for free because it makes you feel happy or fulfilled when you are doing it. It is more idealistic.

As a young man, perhaps when I was in my early twenties, I felt as if my education was a calling. I was fairly obsessed with it and my own development, and thought of most things in terms of how they related to my education or some future career.

After school, when I finally began to get employment that was related to my schooling, I began to think of career development. I saw myself in terms of a certain desired professional role, usually something like "Art Director", where I could have the word "art" in my title, implying a largely creative function, and "director", which implied that I would have a managing or consulting role, perhaps wothout having to get my hands too dirty. :)

Reality was different: I had little practical job experience, but ended up christening myself as Art Director when working with small companies or associations. It was, I guess, my attempt to validate myself - making myself "make it" out from under Tom Hudson's shadow a little bit. Instead of being "directed" by someone else, I wanted that role for myself.

Once I had it on my business card (and I was the guy designing the cards too), I liked it, and was fortunate enough to be able to assign that title to myself in the next reincarnations of the raggedy little companies which eventually became TVI Interactive Systems. TVI was where I learned what the title actually meant, increasing my responsibility and ability to manage and negotiate the changes and challenges of a small, hyper-active high-tech company.

At this phase of my working life, I thought my work was my career but mostly I acted as if it was a calling. I identified myself with my role at TVI so strongly, that I couldn't or didn't want to imagine being anywhere else. I bought into the idealism of doing the best job I could, and the idealism of loyalty and teamwork.

I think that at this stage of my professional development, I was still carrying over the "calling" approach which I had learned at art college. The impression I was left with from Emily Carr College, from my teachers, classmates, and the environment, was that as an artist you must rely on yourself first and foremost, for you could be the only one in the world who believes in what you are trying to say or accomplish. Having a "my work is my life" attitude naturally tended to flow out of such attitudes. Portrait of the artist as an obsessed young man.

Finally though, the lay-off of TVI's staff in 1998 was a devastating blow for me personally. Obsession gave way to desperation as I hoped that the company might come back to life and hire me again. Seven months later (five of which were spent across the courtyard at a neighbouring web company - an insanely lucky break for me), I was finally able to return to work at TVI, now re-christened as TranDirect Holdings.

I think at this point my "calling" approach was replaced with "career" as I realized that I would "outlive" my employers. It seems obvious to me now, but at the time, this was a significant lesson.

In my post-TVI career, I had to grab whatever opportunities presented themself to me. Practicality came first: get a job that could provide a challenge and allow me to use my skills, and then see if it could provide further meaning later on.

Since making that slow change in approach and expectation, I've also found numerous personal outlets through which my need for an idealistic or almost obsessive "calling" could have expression.

This does make it easier to leave work at 5:30 PM and go home - to have more distinction between work and home. I think this has led me to a much more balanced lifestyle.

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