The Parable Of The Bricklayer

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things..” -Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

“Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. ‘I have a feeling tomorrow will be better’ is different from ‘I resolve to make tomorrow better.” -Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Consider the well known parable of the bricklayer…

Three bricklayers are asked: “What are you doing?”

The first says, “I am laying bricks.”

The second says, “I am building a church.”

And the third says, “I am building the house of God.”

The first bricklayer has a job. The second has a career. The third has a calling.

What is your work for you? While we all would love it to be a calling, the truth is for most of us, it’s not. We identify with the first or second bricklayer.

The good news though as Angela Duckworth points out in her excellent book, “Grit: The Power Of Passion and Perseverance”, is that we don’t necessarily have to change jobs to find our calling. We just have to view our work through a different lens. She lays out the research of Yale management professor Amy Wrzesniewski as support for this idea…

Those fortunate people who do see their work as a calling—as opposed to a job or a career—reliably say “my work makes the world a better place.” And it’s these people who seem most satisfied with their jobs and their lives overall. In one study, adults who felt their work was a calling missed at least a third fewer days of work than those with a job or a career.

Likewise, a recent survey of 982 zookeepers—who belong to a profession in which 80 percent of workers have college degrees and yet on average earn a salary of $25,000—found that those who identified their work as a calling (“Working with animals feels like my calling in life”) also expressed a deep sense of purpose (“The work that I do makes the world a better place”). Zookeepers with a calling were also more willing to sacrifice unpaid time, after hours, to care for sick animals. And it was zookeepers with a calling who expressed a sense of moral duty (“I have a moral obligation to give my animals the best possible care”).

Ms. Duckworth goes on to write…

In the parable of the bricklayers, everyone has the same occupation, but their subjective experience—how they themselves viewed their work—couldn’t be more different. Likewise, Amy’s research suggests that callings have little to do with formal job descriptions. In fact, she believes that just about any occupation can be a job, career, or calling. For instance, when she studied secretaries, she initially expected very few to identify their work as a calling. When her data came back, she found that secretaries identified themselves as having a job, career, or calling in equal numbers—just about the same proportion she’d identified in other samples. Amy’s conclusion is that it’s not that some kinds of occupations are necessarily jobs and others are careers and still others are callings. Instead, what matters is whether the person doing the work believes that laying down the next brick is just something that has to be done, or instead something that will lead to further personal success, or, finally, work that connects the individual to something far greater than the self.

I agree. How you see your work is more important than your job title. And this means that you can go from job to career to calling—all without changing your occupation.

“What do you tell people,” I recently asked Amy, “when they ask you for advice?”

“A lot of people assume that what they need to do is find their calling,” she said. “I think a lot of anxiety comes from the assumption that your calling is like a magical entity that exists in the world, waiting to be discovered.”

That’s also how people mistakenly think about interests, I pointed out. They don’t realize they need to play an active role in developing and deepening their interests.

“A calling is not some fully formed thing that you find,” she tells advice seekers. “It’s much more dynamic. Whatever you do—whether you’re a janitor or the CEO—you can continually look at what you do and ask how it connects to other people, how it connects to the bigger picture, how it can be an expression of your deepest values.”

In other words, a bricklayer who one day says, “I am laying bricks” might at some point become the bricklayer who recognizes “I am building the house of God.”

Job, Career or Calling? It can be as simple as how YOU view it. How YOU decide.

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