Is Your Job Your Calling (extended interview)

Two Harvard Business School psychologists offer advice on career choices that provide success and satisfaction.

Is Your Job Your Calling (extended interview)

As directors of MBA career development programs at the Harvard Business School, business psychologists Timothy Butler and James Waldroop offer advice each year to more than 1,600 of the world’s most ambitious and accomplished businesspeople. As cofounders of Waldroop Butler Associates , they provide career counseling and executive coaching to leaders at such blue-chip companies as General Electric, Citibank, Gillette, Hewlett-Packard, Philip Morris, and McKinsey & Co. And as authors of Discovering Your Career in Business (Addison-Wesley, 1997), Butler and Waldroop draw on their combined 30 years of experience in researching the psychology of work-and offer advice on how to make career choices that will provide both success and satisfaction. Fast Company sat down with Butler and Waldroop in their office at the Harvard Business School to get advice on the options facing people in the new world of work.


Most people sense that choices in business today are different. When it comes to people and careers, what actually has changed?

James Waldroop: People in business simply have many more choices today than ever before. Just a decade ago, when you took a job, you more or less did what you were told. The old saying was that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved”: The company dictated the moves you made. When it came to your career, you had one area that you specialized in. That was all you did, and you more or less did it for your whole work life.

If you’re looking for a visual model for change in people’s work lives, first think of a tree: Ten or twenty years ago, you’d join a company, put down roots, and stay put. Today the image of the tree has been replaced by a surfer on a surfboard: You’re always moving. You can expect to fall into the water any number of times, and you have to get back up to catch that next wave.

But the biggest change is in who is responsible for your career. Ten or fifteen years ago, a social contract went along with a job. Companies accepted certain responsibilities for their people. Today that contract is completely different. You are responsible for creating your own career within an organization-and even more important, between organizations.


It’s frequently said that careers are over. Instead, you should expect to hold a series of jobs and to participate in a succession of projects. How do you see the evolution of the career?

Timothy Butler: There are three words that tend to be used interchangeably-and shouldn’t be. They are “vocation,” “career,” and “job.” Vocation is the most profound of the three, and it has to do with your calling. It’s what you’re doing in life that makes a difference for you, that builds meaning for you, that you can look back on in your later years to see the impact you’ve made on the world. A calling is something you have to listen for. You don’t hear it once and then immediately recognize it. You’ve got to attune yourself to the message.

Career is the term you hear most often today. A career is a line of work. You can say that your career is to be a lawyer or a securities analyst-but usually it’s not the same as your calling. You can have different careers at different points in your life.

A job is the most specific and immediate of the three terms. It has to do with who’s employing you at the moment and what your job description is for the next 6 months or so. These days, trying to describe what your job will be beyond 12 to 18 months from now is very dicey.


Waldroop: If you look at the derivations of the words “career” and “vocation,” you immediately get a feel for the difference between them. Vocation comes from the Latin “vocare,” which means “to call.” It suggests that you are listening for something that calls out to you, something that comes to you and is particular to you. “Career” comes originally from the Latin word for cart and later from the Middle French word for race track. In other words, you go around and around really fast for a long time-but you never get anywhere.

You give advice on career decisions to students in their early twenties and executives in their late forties and fifties. Do these age groups face different kinds of choices?

Butler: You tend to make different decisions at different points in your life. In fact, you can almost chronicle the kind of choices you have to make by decade. For example, the decisions that you make in your twenties tend to be about creating opportunities. At that stage of life, the questions you ask are, “What can I choose to do that will make my world bigger?” and “What will give me more options?” In contrast, when you reach your thirties, the decisions are about establishing focus. That’s when you first realize that you’re not going to be able to do everything in your life-and that to do something well, you’ve got to narrow your interests. By your late twenties and early thirties, you’re closing in on something. If you’re doing things well, if you’re becoming more deeply involved in your career, you’re actually closing doors. That’s a very hard task, and we see a lot of resistance to that shift.

As you move into your forties and fifties, the recognition of your own mortality becomes more and more a part of decision-making. You realize that you’re not going to be around forever. Your choices become a lot more precious. The gap between your dreams and what you’re actually doing narrows, and you start living your life more directly. What you’re doing is who you are. And who you are becomes more important to you.


Waldroop: As you go from one decade to the next, the issue of loss comes up over and over. It tends to have a powerful effect on the way you make choices. It’s a simple fact of life: Whenever you choose one path, you’re not choosing another. You choose business, you’re not choosing law. You choose law, you’re not choosing business.

Some people really have a tough time coming to terms with “the road not taken.” They have a sense of grief over choices not made. That’s essentially what a midlife crisis is: You’re eliminating alternatives-for good. You have to come to terms with the fact that a whole host of options have been permanently foreclosed for you.

Very close to the issue of grief are the internal tensions that are at work in career decisions. We all have pulls inside us that move us in different directions. These pulls can take different forms: The tension between self-interest and altruism, between taking risks and wanting security, between living for today and saving for tomorrow. Both sides are part of you, and whenever you make a decision that favors one over another, you experience a sense of loss.

We often see people responding to these real losses by trying not to make decisions. They try to avoid errors of commission and instead make errors of omission-because the decision not to make a decision is a decision.


What advice do you have for people facing a tough career choice, one that could permanently change the direction of their work life?

Butler: Everyone tries to do something that seems like the wise thing to do-but that you shouldn’t do: compromise.You’ve got two competing needs or desires-say, independence and security-and you try to find the position that’s halfway between them. Typically that doesn’t work.

An equally bad approach is to jump radically from one pole to the other, to pretend that you can forget entirely about one need and recognize only the other. When you do that, the genuine need you’re trying to deny simply goes underground and becomes stronger.

Waldroop: We have exercises where we ask people to choose among 13 different business reward values. An obvious one is financial gain. How important is it to you to make a lot of money? Another one is lifestyle. How important is it to you to work in a way where you’re networking all the time? A third is power and influence. How important is it to you to be a player ?

It’s not uncommon for an individual to have a high score on financial gain, a high score on lifestyle, and a high score on power and influence. You can try to jump from one to the other to the other, but when you choose one, the other two don’t go away.


So what’s the answer? To be aware of and live with this tension. It’s a dynamic part of your personality. And if you try to come up with an easy solution, you’re only going to get into trouble. At different times in your life, you’re going to shift more toward one pull than toward the others. But the tension is never going to go away. You can’t balance them out, you can’t take an average of them, you can’t somehow live in the middle. Ultimately what’s required is to live with the tension-and to know that you have to live with it.

As hard as that is to accept, we tend to make it even harder: In this culture, most people harbor the illusion that you can be happy all the time-that in fact, you should even expect it. People spend vast amounts of energy trying to make these tensions go away, and that is utterly fruitless. It’s like trying to get rid of gravity-it’s not going to happen.

Butler: Another element is what kind of personal resources you bring to bear on these tough decisions. A lot of very bright businesspeople try to solve these decisions in their heads. They want to do the math, come up with the bottom-line solution, the right MBA answer, the decision that’s going to solve the problem once and for all. What’s it going to be? Am I going to spend a lot of time with my kids? Or am I going to start up this company and commit the 90 hours per week that it will require? It’s one or the other. What’s the answer?

But there’s a better way: Take the decision out of the abstract and the absolute, and instead deal with the immediate and the real. Look at the next two months or four months. What’s on the agenda? If you have to be on the road, can your family take the hit for the next few months? And then, in the months after that, can your family get more of your attention?

The more you can bring your decisions into the immediate and take them out of the abstract, the more you’re going to be able to stay on top of these dynamic tensions-and even be energized by them.


Even good decisions don’t always work out the way we plan. What advice do you give people to help them feel like they’ve made a good choice, no matter how their decision plays out?

Waldroop: Three things go into making good decisions-decisions that you feel you can stand behind, no matter how things ultimately turn out. First, you have to give a decision the time it requires. You can’t push it, hoping to make it happen faster or just to get it over with.

Second, a good decision involves clarity. By that I mean knowing who you are and how you picture yourself in the future. You need to develop a very clear picture in your mind of how you want and expect to work and live. Does it involve lots of travel? Are you after glitz and glamour? Do you see yourself with a family? Be as specific as you can: How many people in the family? The more clarity you bring to the decision, the better the decision will be.

Several years ago, I worked with a man who came to a very clear picture of what he wanted in his life: He wanted to own a sports team. Once that became clear, he worked out, step by step, what it would take to reach that goal: “To own a sports team, I have to amass great wealth. To do that, I have to be an entrepreneur. To do that, I have to learn about running a business-and it needs to be in an industry where there’s a great deal of upside potential.” As he worked out the logic, it not only made a lot of sense, it also helped guide his decisions.


Third, good decisions involve courage. The enemy of a good decision is fear-fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of making a mistake. A few years back, I worked with a woman who had earned an MBA from a top school and had always done the kind of work that typically goes with having an MBA. But she was never quite satisfied. One day, she came to see me and said, “I finally decided that just because I spent $100,000 on a hammer, I don’t have to spend the rest of my life driving nails.” She blew out of her job. She even left that whole world of work. She completely changed directions. That takes courage.

The biggest decision that people face in the world of work is which career to choose. What advice do you have for people who aren’t sure what their career-or their vocation-should be?

Waldroop: Good career decisions have to be based not just on your aptitudes, but also on your “deep” interests. The most common mistake that people make in their career decisions is to do something because they’re “good at it.” It’s a story I hear all the time. Someone will say to me, “I’m an engineer, but I don’t like it.” Why did you become an engineer? “I was good at science and math, so people told me I should be an engineer.” Did you ever like engineering? “No, but it was easy.”

The real question is, Where are your deep interests? Think of your interests as a deep geothermal pool. Once you tap your interests, you can be express them in any number of ways. You may have a particular aptitude-science and math, for instance-but without a deep interest in expressing that aptitude, you’ll fail.


Butler: Identifying those deep interests has been the focus of our research for the past 10 years. Once you recognize that those deep interests are the best predictor of job satisfaction, the next step is to get in touch with your interest patterns and connect them with the activities that go on in business. Human interests are quite difficult to measure until we reach our early twenties. At that point, they gel-we can measure and describe them. We each develop a unique signature of life interests. And that signature remains virtually constant over time. The pattern won’t change.

Our research tries to tap into this deep structure of interests and translate them into the kinds of work that go on in business. There are eight core business functions-not functions like marketing, sales, and finance, but basic activities such as quantitative analysis, theory development, perceptual thinking, managing people, enterprise control, and creative production. If you look at your deep interests and think about how your interests can be expressed in specific business behaviors, then you’ll have the elements of a good career decision.

There’s one thing that everyone should do in the course of making a career decision: some reflection. You’re going to need some systematic way of thinking through what you know about yourself, thinking through those times in your life when you were deeply excited about what you were doing and deeply engaged in doing it. And then you need to identify the themes that were present during those times.

You may come up with a list of times in your life when you were doing apparently different things-but at each of those times, you were deeply engaged. When you analyze those times, you’ll find themes that connect them. Those are your core interests. Thinking about them in a systematic way gives you the information you need to make a good decision.

You can find Timothy Butler and James Waldroop’s model for matching your deep interests to the opportunities in the workplace by visiting the Web .