It's no secret I'm a self-help junkie. So, when I heard phrases such as "find your calling" or "do what you love," I couldn't help but take them seriously. After years of trial and error, I have reached one simple conclusion. A lot of advice comes from a place of privilege and carries the stench of self-righteousness. Do what you can, is better than do what you love.
I have a confession to make.
When I'm in conversations with strangers, I tend to deflect a little when the topic of what I do for a living comes up. It's not like my work requires top-secret clearance that forbids me from talking about it, nor am I engaged in unsavory or un-shareable activities (no drug-dealing.)
So, why the hesitation?
What I do isn't um—glamorous. And that's saying it nicely. There have been less generous terms used to describe my occupation—run-of-the-mill, nerdy, boring. My personal favorite? Soul-sucking.
My work involves designing and implementing financial accounting software. Not exactly adventurous, life-changing or inspiring, by any means. And definitely not the subject to use in an ice-breaker situation. If anything, it's one way to stop prying voices around you. I dare you to keep up a conversation with a stranger after you've said, "I help implement computer systems."
But it used not be this way.
Utility and purpose
I wasn't always apologetic or evasive about my vocation. Far from it. My career path afforded me opportunities that weren't available to many. So, I have in the past (thankfully, only on occasions) waxed quite eloquently and proudly about my job.
That changed in the new millennium—when society started to mix up definitions of utility and purpose where jobs were concerned.
A job/career/profession went from being something you did to earn actual currency ($$) to earning social currency (identity and coolness.)
And, just like that, people started to choose professions based on the coolness of the job rather than its utility value. You didn't invite scorn when you said, "I'd rather be a starving artist than a boring computer programmer for a big corporation."
Jobs stopped from just being ways to garner paychecks to become defining factors of people's identities. As a result, you couldn't choose any job, but you needed to find your calling and then use that calling to help define your career and other life choices.
That whole "calling" thing? It flummoxed me.
Survival of the fittest
I moved away from India to work in the western world in my early 20s. Before that, I hadn't paid much attention to my calling in life. Truth be told, I had never even encountered the expression "find your calling in life." For good reasons.
Growing up in a nation of a billion people, the ground rules for the bourgeoning middle class were unwritten but very clear. You aimed to get to a financially stable position and then obtain and preserve some form of social status.
The steps were laid out clearly, too: study and compete as hard as you possibly can, get into the best college you can, find a well-paying job, stay ambitious and climb whatever ladders you see.
For the most part, most well-meaning parents wished their children would follow the above trajectory. Of course, in a populous, developing nation, there were limited opportunities to follow this path. Not surprisingly, the theory of survival of the fittest was ingrained deep into your psyche.
Theory of motivation
As a result, people's identities started to revolve around their degrees and their job titles.
Invitations to purely social events such as weddings started to resemble LinkedIn profile descriptions. The bride and groom's names were punctuated by their degrees, job titles, and employer names.
"Crass!" you think? Hardly. In the absence of social media platforms to brag on, people used toolsets available to them (even something as personal as wedding invites) for social validation. The underlying principle is the same: you achieve, you flaunt.
Words like purpose and calling were relegated to the background not because they didn't matter but because they were too stratospheric to contemplate. It was a classic case of Maslow's hierarchy of needs in action—you couldn't think of self-actualization when you still had concerns about basic physiological and relationship needs.
No wonder when it was time to judge my job prospects, I didn't hesitate in doing it through purely utilitarian terms. That's what everyone around me did too.
I was chugging along this path quite contentedly. So, you can imagine my rude awakening when the cultural tones towards occupations shifted about a couple of decades ago.
Find your calling
A new, woke generation of thinkers soon decided our chasing after financial security and comfort were all wrong. It's all "too mercenary," they said. Using financial considerations as a key to making career choices became "lame."
I certainly wasn't immune to this wave of new-age thinking. Self-help literature was abuzz with phrases such as do what you love or find your passion. There was an underlying theme to all of this:
If you LOVE your job, then you don't have to WORK anymore.
Many words could be used to describe my job. Love and passion are certainly NOT some of them.
But I drank the love what you do, do what you love Kool-Aid. It was too tempting not to. I figured it was high time I found a job that I wouldn't refer to as "work" because it would be oh so fulfilling.
I told my boss that I wanted to quit my job to find my calling in life. Fortunately, he convinced me to take an unpaid leave of absence instead. There was one other thing. He was going through a similar crisis of confidence about what he was put on earth to do. The be-passionate-about-your-job bug had bitten him too.
Therefore, he encouraged me to mull over the purpose of my life. He hoped that I'd come back to him in a few weeks with an epiphany that would change not just my life but also inspire him to change his.
Waiting for inspiration
Armed with a lot of encouragement and goodwill, I started my mulling journey.
At first, I was just relieved to take a break from the routine 60++ hour work weeks I was used to. And then, as I waited for inspiration to strike, I did what I assumed people with leisure time do: played computer games, read a little, pottered around a lot, but wasn't particularly productive or useful.
Days turned into weeks. A couple of months passed. Sadly, I didn't have any revelations. Then one day, as I retrieved my husband's paycheck from the mailbox, it dawned on me that there wasn't a corresponding one with my name on it.
I missed my paycheck. But the thing I missed more was being "useful." To my coworkers and clients who had counted on me. And to my family, financially. Frittering away my time, doing nothing, waiting for my calling wasn't helping my self-esteem either.
I rationalized. By working hard and being efficient at my job, I'd truly earned my paycheck every month. In the absence of a greater purpose, being good at my job and helping save for the future would have to do. Not exciting, but it beat playing solitaire and minesweeper (before you judge me, this was in the early 2000s).
From utopia to reality
When I met with my boss three months after our initial meeting, he was obviously disappointed.
He had expected an oracle to show up with prophecies of great tidings in the future. Instead, I showed up, sheepishly asking for my next project assignment.
We agreed to move on and not dwell on what had transpired over the last three months.
But there was a silver lining to all of this. I did have a revelation, albeit not the kind I had expected.
I learned that I needed to dissociate my job from my identity.
Jobs and Identity
For most folks working full-time jobs, after spending a third of your hours sleeping, you spend the greatest chunk of your waking hours at work. To let that slide or not bring that part of your life to the forefront of conversations can be quite tricky.
But deep down, there are two main reasons people tie their identities so closely to their vocations.
a. The culture of overwork
If you're the kind who dedicates your life (weekends included) to your career AND wear that as a badge of honor, it'd be hard not to talk about work. You are keen to convince others you're not a slacker (anyone working less than a 60+ hour work week).
Society and companies have perfected the art of guilt-tripping people into believing that a high-paying job is a privilege—one you pay for with ALL of your time. The rat race is real, though. If you don't do it, someone else is willing to, thus fueling an endless cycle of overwork.
b. Community-benefiting jobs
If your work is already socially relevant (a homicide detective) or cool (scuba-diving instructor at a Maui resort), your jobs become instant and fun conversation starters. No one can fault you for wanting to highlight or even exaggerate this facet of your life.
But there are significant downsides to tying your identity and self-worth to just your job.
The downside to making your job your identity
Making your job a part of your identity then becomes a self-sabotaging prophecy, especially if you believe your work should match your purpose in life.
Find your calling in your job can have severe repercussions due to some innate constraints
A classic example of this is unpaid internships or extremely low-paid entry-level positions.
Getting a competitive internship position at a prestigious firm is considered a privilege. Many times, you get paid in "experience money" instead of in actual dollars, which is fine if you come from a privileged background yourself and are bankrolled by parents who can afford to pay for you while you find your calling.
It is not so for students with already mounting student loans or those needing to support other family commitments.
If you are due to pay rent at the end of the month, you'd likely be supplementing your income through the gig-economy by driving for Uber rather than be an unpaid intern giving art tours at the local history museum. The latter makes great dinner conversation while the former gets dinner on the table.
This leads to me the next issue.
When you're ready to commit everything you have to your job, and the job becomes your only identity, it's easy to get sucked into a veritable web of exploitation.
If you love what you do, you don't have to work another day in your life also means you don't need vacations or breaks. Right? Why would you take a vacation from a job that already feels like a vacation?
This is ripe territory for worker exploitation. Unlike in other situations, where workers are forcibly mistreated, cool jobs offer a platform where workers willingly submit themselves to potentially being taken advantage of.
Demand-supply equilibrium is a fact. Popular or cool jobs often result in excess supply, leading to squeezed wages. In many cases, a good chunk of cool jobs—creating coffee art or being a streaming service movie tagger—requires fewer skills and has low entry barriers. This leads to an oversupply in the job market and a less than ideal wage situation for those involved.
How do we get out of this cycle?
When introduced to a stranger, after finding out their name, one of my first questions used to be "What do you do?" I've learned not to do that anymore. It's question five now (J/k).
Relegating my career to the background when viewing myself and others was a stark but welcome change. It meant not being unidimensional.
It's okay to let your job be utilitarian. You can find other ways to showcase your creativity and uniqueness to the world. Working a desk job that pays well instead of publishing music on your YouTube channel does not make someone a loser. With time and practice, you can learn to do both, maybe.
One to fill your purse and the other to fill your soul.
This brings me to the concept of hedonism.
While I'm all for roll-your-sleeves and embrace the suck, you need to be clear about what your objectives in life are.
We can learn a thing or two about this from the FIRE (Financially Independent Retire Early) community.
The FIRE movement is a growing phenomenon. Its proponents believe in defining a target financial number, which, in theory, would last their entire lifetime. They then work and save hard (by living exceptionally frugally) to reach that target number. Once their target number is reached, they "retire" from their day jobs to pursue a life of their choice, doing what they love.
The FIRE movement, of course, takes incredible discipline, is risk-laden, and requires clear thinking and commitment from not just you but your entire family to the cause.
But they have a point. They urge against lifestyle-creep. If you were able to manage fine with one TV and one car when you didn't have the means, adding a second TV or car later when your salary increases, just because you can, is an example of lifestyle-creep.
Needlessly upsizing, because you have the financial wherewithal to, has a flip side. You enslave yourself to your income sources to keep up the inflated lifestyle. Read this post on how to stop chasing the hedonic treadmill.
The FIRE movement is based on the philosophy of "work hard, play hard." You don't necessarily have to love what you do during the work-hard part because you are working to allow you to do something you love in the play-hard phase of life.
What if I hate what I'm doing?
Emotional satisfaction cannot be underestimated. You won't be able to get out of bed in the morning if you have a job, boss, or coworkers you detest. So, by all means, if you're miserable or mistreated, you need to find a way to do something else that is palatable.
Also, like almost everything in life, it's not black and white—every job/career will have its share of fun and not-so-fun moments.
So, tread the line carefully. No job will be all rose petals and balloons, and you may not always find your calling in that job. But that's okay since that's what the other non-working hours in your life are for.
Most of the advice about "only do what you love," unfortunately, comes from a place of privilege and has a strong stench of self-righteousness to it.
People have accused me of all sorts of things. Being lazy is, thankfully, not one of them. So, when I find myself searching for my calling every few years, it's not because I don't want to do my job; it's just that I'm looking for more meaning.
Three decades in, and I haven't found it yet but will keep looking. In the meantime, I have learned this.
The simplest things in life are ultimately what bring real joy. And, as the Gita says, it's about doing what you need to do.
If I need to write 200 lines of code or prepare another technical design deliverable, I'll do it. Not because it makes me ecstatic. But, because I'm grateful for the financial security my job provides and feel it's worth trading my time for.
In a society where it's considered tactless, crass, and politically incorrect to admit to working for money, I have this to say:
Yes, YOLO and life is short, but healthcare, rent, grocery, and utility bills are real. Don't conflate utility with purpose. The good news is you can have both if you're willing to be practical.