Many of us have probably felt at one time or another that we were in the wrong job or that our jobs lacked any real meaning or purpose beyond a monthly paycheck. We can’t always explain why we feel this way; only that something doesn’t feel right or that life and work seem out of balance. When our jobs feel like a “bad fit” we usually see the problem as a mismatch between what we are currently doing and what we want to do. For some this problem occurs because they lack the right skill set, education or experience to pursue a particular job. As a result the way forward tends to be reasonably clear, even if the transition to a new career requires considerable time, effort and resources. But for others who have the right competencies and training the way forward is less obvious. In this case they already have the right tools, but are working in the wrong jobs. As a result they can stumble around for years making minor career adjustments or lateral moves that never really take them in a new direction. But with very few exceptions a job in one organization or company tends to be exactly like the same job any place else. Whether you’re an engineer, consultant, bank teller, flight attendant or truck driver the responsibilities and tasks associated with your job remain fairly constant.
For those who find themselves in this situation the prospect of continuing in the same career for ten, twenty or thirty more years can be daunting. But why is the way forward so elusive? Why do we spend years going around in circles – switching teams, managers or companies – but never locate the real source of the problem? I think there may be two reasons. First, we underestimate the extent of the change that needs to be made. We are already using our talents and our training, we may also be well paid and highly regarded in our organization, and many of us will have already spent a decade or more mastering a particular set of skills – the so-called “10,000-hour-rule.” In short we have achieved a high degree of success and we use our success as proof that we must be in the right job. So the changes we make never take us outside our current set of tasks and responsibilities and we remain tethered to our ill-fitting jobs. We also get stuck because we do not fully understand, appreciate or value our experience, training, and qualifications – the talent we have for getting the job done. We think of our jobs only in terms of what we do or how we do it; but give very little consideration to the reason behind our work – the why. While the what and how of our jobs can be used to define our competence, proficiency, experience and knowledge, the reason behind our work – the why – is defined by our values, passion, inspiration and dreams. It is these less tangible qualities, I believe, that offer us a way forward.
Consider the painter Vincent van Gogh. What if he had been employed as a paint-by-numbers contractor? He would come to work every day and paint the pictures his employer requested of him – landscapes, animals, architecture, portraits, etc. – all predefined in terms of the content and the colors required for each segment of the painting. The job would require him to follow the paint-by-numbers system and he would get paid based on the hours he spent painting or the number of pieces he completed each day. He would clearly be working in a job that utilized his talents as well as one that incorporated his passion for painting; but would he find any real meaning or value in such a job? And would transferring to a new organization or company or painting other subject matter using the paint-by-numbers system make him feel any better? When we stand before the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, when we see the colors mix and blend and merge, transforming simple paint and canvas into priceless art we begin to understand why these beautiful paintings would be impossible in a paint-by-numbers world. We comprehend as well why individuals like van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Rousseau and Seurat would never be happy doing this kind of work.
Many of us spend a lifetime in jobs that utilize our talents but never fully embrace our values or aspirations. Because we get lost in successful and often lucrative careers, we never seem to locate our real vocations – the jobs we are “called” to do. For some the way forward is clear: embrace your passion, believe in your dreams and invest your time and resources developing the talents necessary to reach your goals. But for those who find themselves stuck in paint-by-number jobs, the path from career to vocation requires a different approach. Instead of an MBA or doctorate, we must invest in a new vision – one that will encompass not only our talents, but our values, passion, inspiration and dreams. We must also be willing to look beyond the boundaries of our current jobs and consider opportunities in other sectors or industries – the not-for-profit world, public service, or a new business venture. When we risk giving up our careers to find a place where what we do and who we are begin to mix and blend and merge, we set into motion a set of changes that can transform our jobs into a true calling. And though few will dare to venture into these uncharted waters, those who do may yet find a life and a career as beautiful and priceless as a painting by Vincent van Gogh.