by Bobbin Wages
As meta as it sounds, clinical associate professor Thomas Conklin’s calling is to help students find theirs.
The first thing Thomas Conklin usually says to his graduate-level students is, “Quit your job.” “Not hastily or radically,” clarifies Conklin, a clinical associate professor of managerial sciences at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business. Many of his students are stuck in unfulfilling professions just because they pay well. Nothing makes him happier than running into former students who abandoned that daily drudgery and pursued work during which the hours melt away. As meta as it sounds, Conklin’s calling is to help students find theirs.
Not surprisingly, people engaged in work they feel they were meant to do typically are not only more productive but also healthier. After all, when professionals’ jobs and values align, their sense of self is less fragmented than if they were required to affect different personalities at home and in the office. “When our life is play and our work is work, there’s a schizoid experience there,” Conklin says. He notes that by promoting the interweaving of work and life, he is not encouraging people to become workaholics. The suffix “aholic,” he says, implies a problem that negatively impacts the balance of marriage, friendship, finances, and spirituality with one’s profession. Instead, heeding one’s calling results in a fuller life.
In his paper “Work Worth Doing: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience of Discovering and Following One’s Calling,” published in the Journal of Management Inquiry in 2011, Conklin points out that classic literature posits that only religious leaders are eligible to have a calling, as the only work worth doing serves God. But, writes Conklin, “the notion of what calling is and for whom it is available has evolved, offering it to all regardless of station.” When asked how one can find deep meaning in low-paying jobs that people accept out of necessity instead of passion, Conklin concedes that a calling is tough but still possible to find, especially if the employee sees it as an opportunity to serve others. He also recognizes that one’s calling and financial bounty do not necessarily go hand in hand. “It’s sad that we live in a cash economy.” he says.
Even though businesses’ survival hinges on revenue, Conklin thinks concentrating solely on money causes many to fail. When companies start to falter, their leaders often immediately cut costs wherever they can, even though investing in staff through training and in clients through face-to-face meetings—despite any required travel—has been proven to pull businesses out of the red in the long run. As metaphor Conklin asks, “Have you ever looked at a faint star at night?”, comparing an intense focus on money to stargazing. “If you look directly at the star, you can’t see it.”
Additionally, Conklin stresses that managers’ responsibility to the businesses they serve expands beyond mechanically checking items off a proverbial to-do list. Despite the time and energy it would consume, managers should slow down, evaluate team members’ strengths, and perhaps reconstruct their roles to better serve the individual, the team and the company. “It’s a magical thing that leads to increased job satisfaction, greater organizational commitment and overall success,” Conklin says. “It’s brilliant, but nobody does it.”
Conklin could engage listeners on effective management all day. “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” he quotes Nietzsche, applying the sentiment to motivating teams. Instead of barking orders, leaders would benefit from explaining the “why” behind driving their staff to action. “They are likely to become willing participants,” Conklin says. Even if the work borders on the verge of suffering, people are more likely to persevere because they have a compelling reason to do it.
A formula for finding one’s calling does not exist, but Conklin says it requires courage, often shared courage from the seeker’s family to let go of what has been comfortable and paid the bills. Conklin listens to lectures by late mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell in his car, and the following excerpt from Campbell’s 1988 conversation with Bill Moyers strikes at the heart of Conklin’s research:
When Conklin urges his students to quit their jobs, he isn’t implying they should disengage from adulthood and move back in with their parents. He is gently nudging them toward the difficult but rewarding path of self-actualization.