Your Bliss: Prospective or Retrospective?

Working with students in higher education is such a privilege because I often get to participate in their important career, and thus, life decisions. Their whole life and career are in front of them.   The possibilities seem endless since they can prospectively plan their bliss into their daily work. According to comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, following our bliss allows us to feel fully alive; work as a vehicle for bliss has huge implications in terms of our motivation and well-being at work.

However, most of us don’t have that luxury of planning bliss into our career. We may be mid-career, with mortgages, dual careers, debt, aging parents and, well, fear of change that may impair our ability to go bliss chasing. We may have come to terms long ago that our bliss ship has sailed and we missed the boat.   At my age, I just don’t think I’m going to give it all up to try to go become a dancer on Broadway.

But that’s a cop out.   No, I will never at this age get to start a dance career where I will be able to earn a paycheck, much less make a living. But what’s to stop me from taking a dance class? If I really feel the need to perform, why not videotape for Youtube? Or the school “talent” show? Sure.

Better yet, there’s so much we can do within the context of our current jobs. We may not have chosen our current job or career path because of our bliss, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find bliss at work. Researchers Bunderson and Thompson reported in 2009 in a seminal paper on callings that zookeepers, whose job mainly entails cleaning cages and caring for animals, frequently find that tedious work to be their calling. In other words, they had a passion for the work and felt it had impact. Similarly, Wrzesniewski (1997) similarly found that callings exist across a range of jobs, ranks, and disciplines from janitors to CEOs.

The key is whether you make meaning of the work you do. For instance, much of my job is pretty routine. In higher ed, we’re awash in bureaucracy and I shuffle a LOT of forms around. Form-filling is not my calling, but underneath that task I am enabling the degree completion of our students. By not passing the task on to faculty, I am also freeing their time to do the important work of research and advising. The task, though mind-numbingly boring, plays an important role in the school that enables success of our students and faculty.

In other words, my focus and interpretation matter. I can either focus on how parts of my job are soul crushing, or how those small things make a difference to others. I’m never going to enjoy filling out forms but at least I complete that task cheerfully instead of with anger, resentment or martyrdom.

How about you? Do you have a calling or just a job? How can you find more meaning in your job and be more aware of the positive impact of your work on others?

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