Survival Principle #3: Quit Your Job and Find Your Work

Posted on | April 23, 2009 | 2 Comments

Survival Principle #3: Quit your job and find your Work.

You make think so, but you really don’t want to keep your job, no matter how good it is. The derivation of the word “job” comes from the Old English word, gobbe. At that time in England, workers were paid by the gobbe, by the lump of what they were digging or making. So, if you have a “job” you could say that you have a lump of something-or are responsible for making lumps of something. That doesn’t sound very appetizing, much less very meaningful. It could be hard to find much satisfaction in making and counting your lumps every day!  

We suggest that you let go of your “job” if you have one of those, and find your work. The word “work” comes from the Greek word erg, the measure in physics of how much energy it takes to move one gram one centimeter. (We need to get Asa to make sure of this one. . .) Work-or erg-is energy in motion along a directional path. Energy in motion along a directional path. Now that sounds like something to get interested in. Would you rather make and count lumps all day or put your energy in motion along a directional path? It’s your choice.  

How to Go From Having a Job to Having a Work
I first heard of this useful hierarchy of work from my good friend and Associate, Mike Murray, a Ft. Worth-based change facilitator. It goes like this:

Work as Mission  
Could you have imagined someone going to Mother Teresa for help and having her say, “Sorry, I’m on a break. . .”?  

Work as Mission is where people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Teresa operate. Here life and work are merged into one. When you hold your work as mission, you are willing to put your life on the line for what you believe in and your work is an extension of who you are. Police, firefighters and certain political leaders often find themselves here.  But so can school teachers, social workers, even some executives.  I spoke with a CEO the other day about retiring, and he said, “I can’t. I’m not done yet. There’s so much more good left to do here!” The key variable is not what the work is, but how involved and committed to it you are. When work lives for you as mission, there is virtually no difference between who you are and what you do.  

The power generated from this position is incredible, and it tends to draw followers to the work being done. This is not the same as being a workaholic, even though people in this category do put in extremely high numbers of hours a day at “work.” Workaholics can be identified by a kind of desperation in their effort, rarely any joy. When work is a mission for you, there is a great deal of deep satisfaction in it all, and a sense of gratitude at being in a position to serve humanity or the world in this way.  

We have run into people at all levels in organizations who hold their work as mission. One truly amazing woman comes to mind, Shawna Eldredge, until a while ago an administrative assistant at Pacificorp, a large Western US utility. Shawna had an awakening where she realized that she could either see her work as a “job” (grinding out “lumps” of correspondence and phone calls) or turn it into a work worth doing. She worked her way into being one of the prime movers for a company-wide culture change project which revolutionized the way her mainline utility company operated. We had Vice Presidents tell us, “She might be seen as ‘just a secretary’ in other companies, but when Shawna calls a meeting or tells us to do something, we all do it!  We know it’s going to change the company-and maybe even our lives-and we wouldn’t miss it for anything.” You might say she put her energy to work in a directional path. Work-as-Mission a powerful place to come from, regardless of your status or functional area.  

Work as Vocation  
If you have a strong sense of being called to do what you do, you could say you have a “vocation” (from the Latin, vocare, – to call). Originally in the Middle Ages, only people called to ministry in the church were said to have a vocation. After Martin Luther and the Reformation, anyone was capable of responding to the call to put the particular gifts they had been given to work. In Work-as-Vocation, you may not be ready to die for what you do, and your life and work are not as inextricably interwoven as they are for mission-directed people, but with there is a clear commitment to what needs to be done that goes far beyond casual interest.  

Again, anyone can hold their work this way. It is not just ministers or other professionals whose work is this important.  You may have had teachers in your life who seemed to be “called” to their work, or met people in less sophisticated positions who saw themselves as living out a vocation. I have been called in my life to serve as a minister, a graduate school founder, a therapist, business founder and now leadership coach and consultant dedicated to “transforming the world at work.” I have always had the same calling. The inner drive has been the same, but the outer shape of the work-“Who signs the paycheck”-has changed many times.

Work as Profession  
There are many “professions” today which can be added to the medieval classical big three of Medicine, Law and Theology. Just look at the list of professional societies in the world: teachers at all levels, writers, scientists, human resource specialists, YMCA workers, Boy and Girl Scout executives, CPA’s, stock brokers, realtors, computer programmers all have their professions. In most cases it means that the person has had to successfully complete a course of study in that field, and frequently involves passing some kind of certification process.

The key here is that the person’s identity is tied up in their belonging to a group that does a certain work. They claim to be something beyond themselves, to be addressing life and its problems (from the Latin, profess–to speak for). When they speak, they are not just speaking for themselves; they speak on behalf of all their colleagues and what they stand for. There is often a strong loyalty and sense of responsibility to the profession itself, to other colleagues in the field, or to a particular body of knowledge and expertise. The work is something they want to “get better at.” Professionals feel a strong sense of responsibility to their field, often stronger than their bond to their organization. They feel accountable to their peers in the profession for the quality of their work, rather than to some “boss” who happens to be around.

Work as Occupation  
When your work is an occupation for you, it lives as the way you “occupy yourself” in a productive way. The level of involvement and commitment to the work itself is not as important as the fact that you are not bored; you feel o.k. about how you spend your time. In an occupation, it is a little easier to make changes and start over. This is not a throwaway category, however.  There is a lot of potential energy here for someone with a strong sense of enjoyment and satisfaction in how they occupy their time, and, properly motivated, they can accomplish great things on a regular basis.    

Work as Job  
At this point, work becomes “the way I earn money.” As they say, “It’s just a job.” At this level it is a lot easier to move from one job to another. You can see that it would not be so easy to move from one Mission, Profession or Vocation to another. People for whom work is “just a job” rarely find much meaning in what they do. They are motivated for the most part by the income they earn. We have found managers, doctors, attorneys and leaders at high levels in major companies who are in this category. These people are not interested in doing anything to make the workplace better, and are frequently the ones to complain the loudest about “the way things are.” Their point of view is almost always, What will this do to my net revenue?

When managers talk about “them” in the workforce, they are usually referring to these folks. Our experience, by the way, is that a very small percentage of people see their work as just a job, and that many who do are waiting to be elevated to a higher notion. If you can listen to their complaints and challenge them to do better-for themselves and for the company-you can often create a more motivated worker, at least one with an occupation.

Work as Interruption  
Here’s where the free spirits are, having to work a “real job” so they can afford to carry out their “real work.” For the people in this category, what happens from 9-5 is a necessary evil, serving to finance the really important things in their life.  We have actually found a few managers in this level, as well, not just “ski bums.” They often have a mission or vocation which is important in their life; they just haven’t found a way to get paid for it.  
There is nothing basically wrong with this or any of these levels. It is harder, however, to motivate and involve someone who sees their work as an interruption to what is more important in their life. Occasionally there are ways-if they are creative enough-to find a way to integrate what turns them on with what they have to do.  We recall a young man who lived for photography and worked in a company’s warehouse. He found a way to become the organization’s photographer, contributing pictures not only to the annual report but to internal and external public relations efforts as well.

Wherever you find yourself on this meaning of work scale, make sure you are where you want to be. In a merger-prone, high-impact change environment, generally the higher you are on this scale, the less vulnerable you are. People with Work-as-Interruption or Work-as-Job or even Work-as-Occupation can be among the first to go because they are the easiest to replace. In addition, if you are looking for something to replace the company as the source of meaning in your life, try turning your job into your work and see what happens. Spiritual masters for centuries have spoken of “The Great Work,” the activity of moving humanity forward toward its full potential. When you can connect your day-to-day activity to something truly important in the world-The Great Work-then what you do can become a joy and your options for employment are essentially infinite.


2 Responses to “Survival Principle #3: Quit Your Job and Find Your Work”

  1. Aggi
    May 31st, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    Thank you for this one. As an employer, I found it to be a refreshing perspective of my people. It got me thinking about the pros and cons of having different “types” on the team. Just imagine how hard it would be to work with just “mission” and “profession” types, as appealing as it may seem.

  2. John Scherer
    June 1st, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    Absolutely, Aggi…
    Being a wise leader often means figuring out what it takes to move someone ‘up’ one level. If everyone had Work-as-Mission, we’d probably not have any dirty streets or bad food or gangs or waste/pollution, maybe not even war (although I’m not sure about that last one…)


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