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Home  > Article

Finding Your Calling

By Ann Reckner

You want a career that will make you happy, but you don't know how to find it? Two psychologists offer advice on where to begin.

Be open to both necessity and opportunity, even if the paths they take us down aren't what we had envisioned for ourselves.
You have a great education. You're graduating into an economy that's eager for new blood. No worries, right? Well, maybe a few.... Every young adult has to scale a number of developmental peaks during the transition from school to work, says psychologist Robert Read. So the question is, how does a young adult-whose main identity until now has been that of a student - create an identity within a broader framework?

Developmental psychologists have traditionally defined one of the main career-related tasks for twenty-somethings as "establishing career orientation and work identity." But getting a fix on a work identity is more complicated than it used to be. Many people switch jobs multiple times throughout their 20s.

For many recent graduates, work is a key component of their post-college identities. Leaving college is "a major transition point, and during any transition you have a sense of richness and opportunity that is both unnerving and exciting," says psychologist Ann Fleck-Henderson. With transition, there is stress and a sense of loss. Young adults look to work to fill some of the gaps created by graduation, especially the loss of structure and social groups.

Passion is no ordinary word
You may already have some idea of what you want to do, or you may have a long way to go. When asked about the characteristics of a good career fit, Read replies, "Passion is one word that comes to mind. Passion doesn't mean that a person is very emotional about her work, but that the work is in some way connected to the core of her meaning and guides her in how she wants to be in the world. Frankly, I worry that people don't find that often enough, because of concerns about status and money, and various pressures and fears that get in the way of finding what we really value."

Creating a personal definition of success is one way to overcome the pressures and fears that hinder the process of finding your calling. Ask yourself what you are passionate about in your life, and write down the things that constitute success for you. Use your notes to compose a definition of success; then revise it until you feel that it is honest and comprehensive. Fleck-Henderson advises grads working on a personal definition of success "to make the personal as important as the success. Maintaining a community, staying connected to one's friends and kin, being involved with one's church if you're a churchgoer-this is all rewarding work that uses skills you develop in college, though it doesn't happen to be rewarded financially."

Read recommends discussing your definition of success with others. "If creating this definition is just a private exercise, you may not be honest with yourself. We share this endeavor-living, career building-with other people, who may have a more objective view of our choices. It can feel risky to share your definition, but the possibilities for self-deception are pretty high if you don't," says Read. Consult your personal definition of success when thinking about career decisions. How do the issues you're considering relate to your definition? Some issues may even make you think about your definition in a new way-be prepared to revise. People also need to revisit their definitions of success every few years. Career planning is possible only up to a point. As we move through our lives and careers, our passions and values may change and our needs become more complex.

Making choices
As college seniors and recent grads, you have many choices to make. Which job should you take? Where should you move? Should you live at home in order to save money? "One of the features of a college senior's life is the fear of making the wrong choice, the fear of closing doors on the choices not made," says Read.

The experts' advice? Don't worry too much about making the wrong career choices when starting out. "Going down the wrong path happens so much that it's normal," Fleck-Henderson says, "and it can make you a more valuable employee." Even a position that's not exactly right for you helps you gain experience and skills that you'll bring to your next opportunity. And finding out what you don't want to do is useful career-building information. If you think you have ventured down the wrong path, "don't go it alone," says Read. "Talk to a mentor, a friend, or a relative. Get it outside of yourself. Anyone who finds himself in the position of having chosen a dissatisfying job or career path is not alone."

You may wonder how you'll know when you've found your calling. "It's a little bit like the question, 'How do I know if he or she is the one?'" jokes Fleck-Henderson. She advises students to ask themselves, "Am I getting the rewards I know I want? Am I being true to what I believe is important?" Students drawn to the finance and technology industries probably have little trouble reconciling those two questions. But if your calling directs you toward the humanities or the helping professions, being true to yourself can mean making tough choices. While it may not be difficult to find jobs in these areas, it can be difficult to find positions that pay a decent wage or that use the skills you've learned in college.

"Young adults need an environment that supports their development," says Fleck-Henderson. "And an environment that neglects large parts of who you are, that underchallenges you or underpays you, is problematic." Even students who go into "high-powered" fields sometimes face developmental hazards. She notes that a job that overchallenges you is not supportive of optimal development, either. "If you have a career that doesn't allow you time, not just for family, but time for play, relationships, spirituality, you really have to ask yourself if that's what you want. And maybe it is. But recognize that you are choosing to put all your talents and energies in one direction."

No "wrong" choices
Keeping your goals and priorities in sight can help you to understand that sometimes even making the "wrong" choices is part of the process. For every path that results in a dead end, another will lead you toward success. Cultivate your ability to recognize the opportunities for growth and self-understanding in either scenario. "Be open to both necessity and opportunity," says Fleck-Henderson, "even if the paths they take us down aren't what we had envisioned for ourselves. People's careers evolve based on not just what they choose, but on what happens to happen. You have choice and responsibility, but a lot depends on what's available at the moment that you're looking and on the people you happen to know."

Robert Read and Ann Fleck-Henderson offer academic, psychological, and consultative services at the Bureau of Study Counsel at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. Fleck-Henderson also teaches at the Simmons College School of Social Work, and Read is on the faculty of Cambridge College.

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