Looking for your “true calling” during a career transition? Search for fulfillment instead

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

Clients who hire an executive coach commonly do so when their career is in a state of transition – or when they think it should be. Life’s transitions often cause us to put extreme pressure on ourselves, but clients sometimes double-down on this pressure by also trying to identify their one “true calling” to leap into post-transition. This is such a tall order, particularly during a transition, that clients quickly feel frustrated, let go of their ideal, and settle for “hopefully good enough.” The cycle continues.

Career transitions come from many circumstances, but I find they fall most often into four categories:

  • Dissatisfaction with the past two or more roles – they’re not what you hoped they’d be. You keep feeling disappointed each time you switch companies/managers/teams, hoping you’ll feel more fulfilled this time, but you don’t. Your dissatisfaction goes beyond the company/manager/team, you realize. You need a bigger change.

  • Hitting an unmoving wall of career progression – if you find yourself unable to progress in title, scope, or learning, and you keep hitting a wall regardless of manager/team, you may find yourself stepping back to reevaluate general fit within your current career path.

  • Changing priorities – you’ve experienced or are experiencing a transition in another part of life – e.g. becoming a new parent, starting an executive MBA, etc. This often triggers a voluntary reevaluation of priorities at work.

  • Forced by external circumstances – moves, layoffs, health concerns and other life changes can force an involuntary career transition. You may or may not have been ready for such a transition, but it gives you an opportunity to proactively evaluate what you actually want.

Whatever the driver, there’s often tremendous pressure to figure out “what’s next?” once you hit this transition phase. Not only is your financial health possibly at stake, but there’s also pressure to “get it right” this next time, to find the “right” career path for you (as opposed to the “wrong” one you were following up to this point). You’re feeling pressure to find your “true calling.” In addition to pressure, you may also be feeling shame, disappointment, and elements of failure because of the career path you’re leaving behind.

Not only are the self-judgment and pressure unhelpful, but they can also be destructive to the very goals you’re trying to achieve. In fact, with rare exception, I’d argue humans don’t have one “true calling.” Why are we trying so hard to find it? We are multi-dimensional beings with many strengths, passions, and values that span across every aspect of our lives. We also change and grow constantly. Even our sense of taste changes as we age — my previous spice-free husband is currently growing ghost chili peppers in our garden (I have to handle them with latex gloves)!

How, then, can you expect yourself to funnel everything you feel, think and want today into one vocation that will fit you for the rest of our lives?

You shouldn’t. So don’t!

Instead, start by focusing on who and where you are today. What makes you feel fulfilled now? What allows you to be present and in the moment more often than not?

According to this HBR article, the three things most of us want at work are:

  1. A sense of competency and mastery – a job that gives you autonomy, allows you to utilize your strengths, and promotes learning and development.

  2. Community – the sense that you are appreciated at work, that you “belong” and have strong relationships with colleagues.

  3. Cause – your work has a meaning and a sense of purpose, and that purpose is aligned with your core values.

Be ruthless in filtering out opportunities that fail to deliver one or more of these characteristics. Test for these characteristics (kindly) as you learn about future opportunities. Have a list of non-negotiables, and when push comes to shove, be willing to say no to a role that doesn’t align with them!

Second, spend some time getting to know the many facets of your passions. I highly recommend checking out the book “Find Your Passion: 25 Questions You Must Ask Yourself” (free! as of 8/23/19 for AmazonPrime members on Kindle Reader). If you overlook some of the language in this book that suggests there is one thing each person is “meant to do,” you’ll find a wealth of questions that help get deeper into all of your dimensions — your strengths, values and inner curiosity. You’ll get more in tune with what sets you on fire, what brings you joy, and what legacy you want to leave on this Earth. You don’t need to distill them all into one single “unicorn” role that will be perfect for the rest of your life. These can instead become the menu from which you choose how to interact with the world.

Finally, enlist help. A mentor, a coach trained by an ICF-accredited institution, or trusted colleague can help sanity check your thought processes and ensure you’re not overly focused on long-term happiness at the expense of the present, or on a too-narrow aspect of your passions over all others. You can also enlist their help to draw up a roadmap for achieving any newfound goals.

Haven Coaching