We’ve all heard the old saw that some people work to live and others live to work. But according to a framework developed first by Yale professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues there are actually not two approaches to work and life. There are three.
The three approaches to work
First there are the work to live folks. This is how the vast majority of people throughout human history have thought about their work — they do it to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Work is a means to an end. Academics call this having a ‘job orientation.’
Then there are those with a career orientation. This view sees work as a path to status, prestige, and fat bank balances. In short, you work to climb the ladder. Finally, some folks take their commitment to their work a step further. They view it as not a job or a career, but as a calling.
“Individuals with a calling orientation often describe their work as integral to their lives and their identity. They view their career as a form of self-expression and personal fulfillment,” explains career coach and author Katharine Brooks in her breakdown of the three types on Psychology Today.
Brooks stresses that these orientations are about our attitude toward work, not job titles. You can find janitors who see their work as a calling, or an ambitious administrative assistant who is completely career minded. Creative professions like writers are often stereotyped as having a calling, but I can tell you from personal experience that professional writers run the gamut from monks to mercenaries.
Research shows the population is roughly evenly split among the three orientations. If you’re a decent ways into your working life, it’s probably pretty obvious which one you lean towards, but if you’re unsure, this quiz (it’s the ‘work-life questionnaire’ under ‘tests’) can help you decide.
Which are you looking to hire?
This is a fun and handy way to categorize people, but why is it more useful than trying to figure out which Harry Potter house you’d belong to or which Sex and the City character is your spirit animal? On an individual level, Brooks explains, knowing your orientation can help you craft a career that works for you and avoid common pitfalls.
If you know you have a job orientation, for instance, you can emphasize finding fulfillment outside of paid employment with hobbies, community activities, or family. Those with a calling orientation should know that while pursuing work you’re passionate about can be satisfying, it also comes with elevated risk of burnout, a reality you need to guard against.
A recent Quartz article by Lila MacLellan makes an adjacent point that’s particularly relevant to entrepreneurs and hiring managers. It’s not only important to know your own orientation towards work; it’s also important to know the orientation of those you hope to hire.
Companies, MacLellan writes, “can rarely be all things to all people. Some may emphasize purpose or a hard-driving culture over pay and work-life balance, which wouldn’t suit those with a job orientation. And other workplaces may promise meaningful work or pathways for advancement, but fail to deliver either in practice.”
Problems arise, in other words, when a workplace’s often unstated expectations for employees differs from their actual orientation. Some of what we are seeing in the current Great Resignation could be employees, armed with new pandemic clarity, realizing they’re unwilling to pretend to have a calling when all they want is a fair paycheck.
There are no right answers here. It’s fine to offer a four-day workweek and try to attract top talent looking for plenty of time to pursue other passions outside work. Or you could foster a culture focused on hiring clear-eyed careerists willing to sacrifice short-term balance for long-term rewards. The only trouble is when you don’t make these decisions consciously and ensure that your expectations about orientation line up with those you hire.