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- Feeling passion for and deriving meaning from work is often seen as a good thing. But in “The Job,” Ellen Ruppel Shell explains how that can backfire.
- If you lose your job, you might also feel like you’ve lost your identity.
- What’s more, employers might be inclined to take advantage of your devotion to work.
- Some CEOs – like Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman – have also said that your job shouldn’t define you.
In her new book, “The Job,” journalist Ellen Ruppel Shell includes a chapter on finding meaning in your work.
A meaningful job is something most of us aspire to (or at least say we aspire to): A recent BetterUp survey found that nine out of 10 American workers would sacrifice some of their lifetime earnings if they could find greater meaning at work.
Yet Shell makes a persuasive and relevant argument for the potential hazards of finding too much meaning in your work.
Shell spoke to Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale professor whose research on “job crafting” – or molding your job to be more meaningful to you – has made its way into more than a few career-advice books and articles.
Wrzesniewski’s research also divides workers into three different categories: those who see their work as a job, a career, or a “calling.” If you see your job as a calling, you’re inclined to see your life and work as linked inextricably, and you’re motivated by a sense of purpose and mission (as opposed to financial rewards).
Sounds fine so far. But feeling called to your job is, as Shell puts it, a double-edged sword.
Keep in mind that one day, you might not be doing your current job anymore
Jeffery Thompson, a professor at Brigham Young University who has researched job callings, gave Shell a few reasons why seeing your work as a calling can be dangerous.
Thompson said, “If you believe you were put on this earth to fill some ‘calling,’ and for whatever reason you do not do it, you might easily consider that a moral failure.” What’s more, Thompson said, if you feel called to your work, you might even be more vulnerable to exploitation from managers, because they sense you’ll do anything to stay in this role.
Another practical reason why callings can be harmful is the sheer fact that, one day, you might lose your job.
This happened to Dan D’Agostino – who was fired from his position as CEO of a multi-million dollar business. But as D’Agostino wrote on Business Insider, “Being fired and taking a year off has provided me with the space to get truly comfortable with not having my identity tied to an occupation.” Instead, D’Agostino spent time traveling with his family.
Meanwhile, Sallie Krawcheck, the founder and CEO of Ellevest, has spoken about getting fired from her position as head of Merrill Lynch’s global wealth management division at Bank of America.
On an episode of the podcast Radiate, Krawcheck said, “It really is about how you define yourself. Do you define yourself by your title? Do you define yourself by the company you work at? Do you define yourself by the amount of money you make? Do you define yourself by whether you have a corporate jet? I define myself by impact … and so, even when I went on the big jobs, I thought ‘How can I have an impact?'”
Sometimes finding new passions – or new outlets for your longtime passion – can be beneficial
In “The Job,” Shell describes research conducted by Sally Maitlis, a professor at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School. Maitlis followed professional dancers and musicians who had to stop that work because of illness or injury. And she learned that the artists for whom work was a larger and more consuming part of their identity were the least likely to bounce back.
On the other hand, some of the artists for whom work was less consuming found ways to channel their dedication to music or dance in other ways that weren’t “jobs” per se.
One former bassoon player who had been hit by a car began reading and teaching writing. She told Maitlis that her “world started opening. A lot. And I started finding out I had ideas and interesting things to say.” (This quotation isn’t included in “The Job,” but it appears in a chapter Maitlis wrote in the book “Exploring Positive Identities and Organizations.”)
Shell summed up her conversation with Maitlis: “Flourishing in a global economy requires us to see ourselves independent of our jobs while maintaining a strong grasp of our work identity” – something that, to be sure, is easier said than done.
James Gorman, CEO and chairman of Morgan Stanley, alluded to something similar in an interview with Bloomberg’s David Rubenstein. “You have to be able to, once you’re not CEO, for that not to materially affect how you are as a person,” he said. “Your job shouldn’t define you. Your job is: You’re CEO for a point in time, you’re helping drive the vessel, and you’ll get off it, and hopefully it does better after you’re gone.”