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The secret to a successful career

By Donna Weston – Career Coach

Many of my clients are going through the process of assessing what is really important to them in life right now, triggered by the start of a new year and their experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. They talk about each of the nationwide lockdowns having simplified their life in part, jolting them out of established habits of living and providing a different perspective on who they are, how they are living life and what is important to them. New emotions have been stirred, priorities have changed and the incongruence between strongly held personal values compared to the tacit values experienced in the workplace are more vivid. As most of the world still sits under the cloud of the pandemic, many of my clients have expressed a general feeling of dissatisfaction (the Adam Grant New York Times article on Languishing is often mentioned!)  as well as a renewed desire to have a greater impact, to do something more meaningful, to experience more freedom, to enhance their personal wellbeing and to contribute to the greater good.

To unpack what is going on here it is helpful understand the nuance between the following terms:

A Job – is what you do for the pay check at the end of the month.  You’re not particularly inspired or interested in the work; it’s a means to an end and you do not consider where it might lead. You pursue your main interests outside of work.

A Career – Is a long-term endeavour with a clear development path, which becomes part of who you are. Careers are long and what you thought might suit you in your early career will very likely change as you get older. You will probably have a number of careers during a lifetime.

A Calling – This is your ‘why’, your purpose, the deep-seated feeling of what you are on this planet to do that transcends your career, and provides direction for your whole life.  Originating as a religious concept; being called by God, in contemporary society it has a more secular definition. The Japanese concept Ikigai gets very close to describing what a calling is – the intersection of 4 things:

  1. What you are good at
  2. What you can be paid for
  3. What the world needs
  4. What you love

Research shows that establishing a calling can lead to a more fulfilling career. As such, the exploration of calling for those who are feeling dissatisfied and lost in their career can provide the motivation and energy to make a change and improve their career decision making in the long term. Although there is nuance to this, for example; if you have ever experienced redundancy you will know that it often triggers a desire for a more meaningful role, however, financial requirements end up taking precedence and you feel you have to take the first job offered which is often similar to the role that you have just left. Hermenia Ibarra in her book ‘Working Identity’ highlights that major transitions take 2 or 3 years as a result of an ongoing process of identifying and exploring possible selves starting well before the transition itself.  As careers lengthen – and are increasingly multi-staged – it is inevitable that you will go through a number of transitions throughout your career. With this in mind, exploring matters related to calling regardless of the stage of career you are at can enable you to ‘futureproof’ your career (to assess how futureproofed your career is you could try John Fitzgerald’s Future Readiness Index).

Hall and Chandler’s ‘calling model of career for psychological success’ links two aspects; calling and self-confidence, to the achievement of goals which results in the development of your identity, creating a positive feedback loop and recipe for intrinsic success. So the exploration of calling if you are going through a transition or dealing with a perceived failure in your career can be helpful at rebuilding self-confidence. Crucially, in moments of uncertainty calling can provide you with a unifying structure, a story, that enables you to project your whole life, which encompasses career, into the future.

Discerning a calling is a significant piece of the jigsaw which results in a more satisfying career, however, there are often other elements that are required to enable change. As well as undergoing a process of establishing what is important for you, Hermenia Ibarra identifies two other elements necessary for career change – crafting experiments (testing out potential new career paths) and shifting connections (connecting with people outside of your normal social bubble). It is also important to recognise that the success cycle resulting from discerning a calling does not operate in isolation; context is important and unique for everyone.

For a variety of reasons some of my clients are unable to exit an unsatisfying role, and if this is the case for you crafting the tasks within your role to reflect your core values; identifying critical relationships with people who are aligned to your calling and recognising how your work connects to a higher purpose can help you to re-engage with your work. (This is explored by Amy Wrzesniewski in this Ted Talk).  Also recognising that calling connects all life roles expands your options – it may be that your career provides the resources needed to pursue a more meaningful activity outside of work.

The organisations I work with will often seek executive career coaching for their leaders to increase engagement and performance, improve decision making and mitigate against conduct risk. Research by Hall and Chandler shows that employees who are realising their calling tend to be happier, more committed and the most engaged. This results in improved job performance as well as job satisfaction giving the organisation a competitive advantage.

However, there is a darker side to calling. For those who are committed to following a calling the balance can swing into unhelpful behaviours resulting in workaholism, exploitation and burnout. These are areas to watch out for at an individual, team and organisational level especially as the social norms within some organisations can reward behaviour that results in these outcomes. Another weakness of calling is job idolization which results in other roles and responsibilities being neglected. Adopting a systemic perspective – considering your whole life and not just work-life can help mitigate against these less positive aspects related to calling.

The exploration of calling is key to future proofing your career and improving your career decision making, which leads to a more intrinsically successful and fulfilling life and it’s not just you who benefits, the pro-social nature of calling benefits us all.

So how can you discover your calling?  You could try these 5 exercises to start the ball rolling:

  • Play with this interactive wheel of life tool (
  • Explore the concept of Ikigai, the japanese concept closely related to calling. Use a four-point grid labelling each line as ‘time spent doing what you are good at’; ‘appropriate level of renumeration’; ‘contribution to the world’; ‘how much you love what you’re doing’. Mark on each line how you fair in each of the aspects, the higher you fair the closer to the tip of the line your mark should be. Now join these marks together with a continuous line. What does this show you? How balanced are these 4 aspects and what do you need to adjust?
  • How can you contribute to both people and planet?  Explore the 17 UN Sustainability Goals – which of the sustainability goals do you really care about; what ripples can you create that will contribute to achievement of one or more of these goals?
  • Speak to a Career Coach who will have various tools to help establish themes that are meaningful for you
  • Look out for people who are having an impact that you admire or living a lifestyle you would like – What do they do that you find inspiring? What changes does this inspire you to make?

Enjoy the journey!

By Donna Weston – Career Coach

Further reading

‘Make your job a calling’  Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffy