How to tell the difference between a Calling, a Career & a Job (and what to do about It.)

I recently traveled to Kauai, an island in the Central Pacific.

Before I left, I scrambled to get everything done. But even as I boarded the plane, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would miss some crucial meeting or opportunity while I was gone.

Then we landed, and I was transported—not only to a different place, but to a different time as well. Because Hawaii is an island, it managed to resist imperialism for a long time. This means that the old ways, dampened as they may have become, are still alive on the islands.

In learning about the preservation of Hawaii’s native culture, I arrived at this conclusion: the way our society currently approaches work is a little effed up, but primed for innovation.

Back in the early days of civilization, we had mindful communities—not careers. Everyone in the tribe did the tasks that they were best suited for and that best contributed to the tribe’s overall good.

As we fell away from a peaceful, collaborative tribe and into a vibe of competition and scarcity, we needed to create a career script so we wouldn’t fall behind.

My personal script was filled with “shoulds:”

I should major in something I’m really good at.

I should value the stability of a paycheck over everything else.

I should stay late every night to prove my dedication.

I should accept the way things are rather than trying to improve my organization.

The most damaging “should” in my script was the notion that I should be moving forward and upward in my career at all times, like an upward slanted line. The truth was, I didn’t seem to move through life like this.

Most of us don’t!

Most of us move in a spiral, figuring some things out but then winding back again, in and out, in and out. In a spiral, sometimes we have to double back and wind inward in order to move forward. This spiral-y way of thinking about work confuses people rooted in the competition-and-scarcity based world, so they view it as a failure. But it’s not.

I vividly remember realizing that the upward slanting line of career growth might be bullsh*t. I was sitting in my cubicle, in a job I hated at a company whose sole mission was making more money for their shareholders.

My boss had just chastised me for using italics in an email, and it dawned on me: “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I know I should be grateful for the job I have, but there has to be something more. Something more real and deeper. There has to be a more meaningful way to work.”

We are taught that the upward slanting line of career growth is the right way, so of course, we worry about going rogue and exploring the spiral path. But if you have a calling, everyone else’s script doesn’t satisfy.

So, how can you tell if you have a calling? And how do you put your mindful mission into action?

Here’s how I define the difference between a calling, a career, and a job.

A job is a series of tasks you do in exchange for money. You show up, perform your duties, and leave at the end of the day. There’s not a huge focus on “moving up” and the job itself is fairly disposable and easily replaced.

A career is an upward trajectory of increased task mastery, responsibility, and earnings, all under a loose theme. Think “HR professional.” You may start as an assistant, and as you learn more about the field, you get more responsibilities, which lead to promotions and more money. You repeat these steps and climb a different rung of the ladder each time. Sometimes you may jump from one ladder to another, but there’s an overall sense of building.

A calling is a collection of personal gifts, talents, and lessons learned that manifests a deep desire to create, heal, inspire, and innovate for a specific higher purpose. A calling is something that comes naturally to you. Though there may be levels of mastery to attain, you are born with what you need to do it.

You have a calling if you’re comfortable surrendering to the spiral, not the script. The upward slanting line of a career is only outward. The spiral of a calling begins inward and then becomes outward. If you have a deep desire to create, innovate, heal, or inspire—bam! You’ve got a calling.

If you secretly suspect you might be called toward something bigger than the script, here are a few ways to embrace the spiral:

1. Make art of your journey.

All of your favorite stories are already there: just a look at specific people, how they overcome problems, what lessons they learn, and who they meet along the way. Look backward, and create the narrative of your journey. What adversity have you overcome? What battles have you won? Who are the zaniest characters, and what have been some of the most exciting plot twists?

Since a calling begins inward and then spirals out, you have a tremendous amount of impact to make in the arena of your life experience, even if it’s not a field you’re formally qualified in. Look backward and pick up the breadcrumbs your calling has left for you. What clues can you pick up? Who might you be here to help?

2. Decide if you want your calling and your career to overlap.

Spoiler Alert: They don’t have to.

Because a calling moves in a spiral, it’s present whether or not you are currently earning money from it.

For example, you could have a calling and a career, separately, like the woman whose calling is motherhood might moonlight as a marketing analyst Monday through Friday. You could have a job and a calling separately, like the musician who works as a part-time barista when he’s not composing and playing gigs. Or you could have a calling and career that overlap, like me—my calling is growing higher consciousness in humanity, but I do it through a career of helping people find meaningful work.

Your calling and your career don’t need to overlap at every single moment in your adult life—all you have to do is find the intersection that fits you.

3. Be the paintbrush, not the painter.

What if the thing you came to Earth to do isn’t actually about you? Seriously. That business you feel called to launch? It’s not about you. That book you were meant to write? Nope, not actually about you. Maybe there’s no need to “find” it, but simply to surrender to it.

My ego wants to make my coaching and writing all about how brilliant I am, which leaves me attached to the outcome and stuck in paralysis-by-analysis. But when I’m honest with myself, the truth is that I am simply a vessel. My job is to create safe space for clients to have their own breakthroughs. Surrendering to the spiral gives us the space to embrace our callings because we’re not the artists—we’re the tools.

Simply put, if you are awake, then yes. You have a calling, and the world needs it.

If you suspect that the script might be bullsh*t, you have a calling. If you feel a deep yearning to make a difference in the world, you have a calling. The good news is that your calling wants to move through you whether or not you’ve embraced it yet. It’s a bit like a merry-go-round. If you miss jumping on once, it will come back around.

Whereas a career trajectory is well laid-out and predictable, a calling starts inward and then slowly unfurls, spiraling outward, getting clearer with every step you take.

Rather than moving up the ladder, it feels like wading into deep water or venturing into the woods. This doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong—it means you’re exactly on track.

Maybe it’s not impossible to navigate the spiral and discover your calling. Maybe your calling is looking for you, too.



Author: Amy Everhart
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Social Editor: Khara-Jade Warren 
Copy Editor: Danielle Beutell

You must be logged in to post a comment. Create an account.

Amy Everhart Aug 4, 2017 1:21am

Isn't it crazy how our job titles define us? Can you imagine how different the would would be if we all had that authenticity and ripple effect?

Amy Everhart Aug 4, 2017 1:20am

Thank you, Svenja! I'm so glad it resonated!

Amy Everhart Aug 4, 2017 1:19am

Go inward. Why did you love to do as a kid? If you had all the time and money in the world and everyone in your life was unconditionally supportive, what would you do? If you could teach humanity one thing, what would it be. These are all clues!

Svenja Di Aug 3, 2017 9:48pm

Great article (and actually helpful, which isn't always the case with career/calling articles.) I will come back to this to re-read!

Lisa Stafford Aug 3, 2017 6:00pm

how do you find your true calling? where do you start?

Marie Lyon Maiorana Aug 3, 2017 5:00pm

Perfectly put. Our schools, colleges, most work places, & society don't help us develop who we really are. In America, we're judged by our job titles & "work" is a 4 letter word to most. Figure out your calling because this is the most authentic you! Things will fall into place, you will be happy & that will have a ripple effect on you, your family & possibly the world.

Read Elephant’s Best Articles of the Week here.
Readers voted with your hearts, comments, views, and shares:
Click here to see which Writers & Issues Won.

Amy Everhart

Amy Everhart is a writer and certified career coach who helps creatives and world-changers make the impact they were born to make. She is a former English teacher, and she has led nonprofit programs that empower and inspire teachers and students to tell their stories through writing and has served as a recruiter and job placement specialist. In other words, she has a lot of letters behind her name and feels completely justified when choosing to purposefully split infinitives. Her all-consuming passions include Rupaul, Grand Marnier, empty Moleskine journals, and the ripple effect consciousness has on the world. Catch up with Amy on her website.