The Anatomy of a Career Path

Research by Amy Wrzesniewski while at the University of Michigan showed that people see their work in one of three very different ways:  As a job (a means to earn money for survival or lifestyle,) as a career (an opportunity to learn and grow,) or as a calling (an avenue for personal fulfillment and making a difference in the world.)

But how does one move from a job, to a career to a calling?  To me, it seems like this is a natural evolution over time as we interact with the world of work and hopefully learn more about what we can contribute and what value we can extract.  We experiment with different things, and hopefully are able to craft our work over the course of a lifetime to become a greater expression of the people we are, or those we want to be.
I certainly feel that way about my own career path.  In fact, if I think back over the history of my career, I hypothesize that there are many different stages of this evolution that I have experienced and I wonder if others have found the same thing in their own career.
I see the following evolutionary stages along the path from a job to a calling, and I imagine that most people (but not all) probably spend some time in each of these stages before moving along to the next chapter:


This is only my own theory based on my own personal history, but let me explain what I mean by each stage and you can tell me if you agree.

Most people are introduced to the world of work in their youth as a means to achieve greater independence.  They may, as I did, experiment with a variety of different jobs, each with the ultimate goal to create income in order to fund other interests.  Having an income allows people to make important life decisions around living arrangements, transportation, education and lifestyle without being as constrained by the will of their parents or other family members.  This stage is all about making some money, and perhaps beginning to experiment with different types of jobs to get a sense of strengths and interests for future work opportunities. 

(In my early career I was an “earner” by selling newspaper subscriptions, as an administrative assistant in a dental office, a lifeguard , a swimming instructor, and a fitness instructor.)

In the Learner stage, rather than thinking paycheck to paycheck, people begin to identify the potential for future growth (earning growth, opportunities for a better lifestyle, and opportunities for a self-identity around a career.)  In this phase, they have begun to identify certain things that they like or don’t like about the world of work.  They begin to imagine a path that will lead to more of what they do like and less of what they don’t like.  Usually, the key to moving forward on this path will come from developing expertise to create greater value for an employer (or for your customers in the case of a contractor or business owner.)  This phase is all about developing that expertise and moving up to the next level.

(Eventually, my lifeguarding jobs brought me to my first job in the hospitality industry, where I learned to enjoy customer service and the opportunities to supervise a team.  I became motivated to excel at my work so that I could “move up” and establish a career in hospitality and eventually spas.)
With a continued focus on developing expertise, it is only natural that over time, leadership opportunities open up.  In this phase, people will have already shown that they can become subject matter experts in their field and so they begin to fill leadership positions as a manager or a mentor to others in their industry.  Now, the focus is not on developing greater expertise but rather on working with a team of people and inspiring others to help you to achieve your vision.  In this phase, people continue learning and growing, but their skill development becomes more focused on understanding the big picture of their industry to support a strategic vision and learning how to be a leader that inspires and motivates others.

(After ten years [research shows that expertise takes about ten years of dedicated practice to achieve] of opening and operating luxury resort spas I established a reputation as a leader in the industry, regularly invited to write and speak in industry mediums.  Eventually, I gathered over twenty years of experience,  including serving on the board of directors for the International Spa Association as Vice Chair and securing my current role as corporate director of global spa development and operations for one of the largest hospitality companies in the world.)

Once people become established as a leader in their field, they gain another form of independence that they may not have previously had.  While they still may have constituents, customers and shareholders that they need to please, they have more freedom to develop their own ideas and explore them rather than simply working on projects that have been dictated by their superiors, peers, or the market.  Through their work in the other stages they have earned enough trust that they can now implement their own ideas and work on things that might be more like personal passions than workplace objectives.  In the Creator stage, people begin to become more “self-actualized” in their work and begin to make the transition from a “career” to a “calling.”

(Only recently do I feel myself moving into this phase.  I no longer feel the need to establish a reputation or expertise and am somewhat able to devote time to projects that are personally interesting to me.  That includes the development of this blog, teaching a course on Positive Leadership (free webinar here), and developing training programs for Starwood Hotels based on Positive Psychology.)

When people get to the creator stage, they may realize that the work they are doing is most meaningful when it contributes to society in a valuable way.  Success is now less measured by income, status, or by the freedom to create your own vision, but rather by the impact it has on others and the good it does in the world.  In this stage, people begin thinking about the contribution their work makes to their employees, customers, shareholders and society at large.  In short, they start thinking about the legacy they want to leave in the world.

(This is the stage I hope to evolve into next.  I can feel my contribution increasing through my blog [for example articles on Elevationism or Exercising Moral Muscles] but feel there is much farther to go.)

I like to imagine that through my work in spas, I am already touching peoples’ lives in a way that leaves them less stressed, more patient, kinder and more forgiving of their fellow man.  I do think spas are a positive force in the world that create their own little ripple effects of peace out into universe. But my hope, as I move from my career to my calling, is to deepen that impact, to lessen man’s inhumanity to man, and create a world where peace and harmony reign. 

Where are you on your path?  I’d love to hear about it.

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16 Responses to The Anatomy of a Career Path

  1. Eric Stephenson September 13, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    Thanks Jeremy. It is interesting to see your evolution written through this lens. This post comes at a fascinating time for me. Recently, I have thought a lot about moving through various stages of career/personal development as I enter a new stage in my life. This model is helpful on many levels.

    I too am entering the Creator stage. The archetype I am identifying with is “Messenger”. After many years as a leader, I am ready to take the message from the spa/wellness world to the masses. We share a common goal in our desire to lessen man’s inhumanity to man. Carl Rogers concept of “Unconditional Positive Regard” first for oneself, then for all others is at the heart of everything I teach.

    It occurs to me that probably the biggest resistance to evolution is my own over-identification with “who I think I am”. In each one of these transitions, I have had to let go of the attachment, the fear, the security and bet on myself- follow my intuition. In the words of Joseph Campbell: “You must abandon the life you have planned in order to receive the life that is waiting to be yours.” (I would love to hear your thoughts about this as a possible future blog topic.)

    You and “The Psychology of Wellbeing” touched my life today. Thank-you.

  2. Marie-Josee Shaar September 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Interesting theory, Jeremy! I think the stages you are describing and their progression make a lot of sense. For me however, the order has been a little different: I moved from earner to learner to creator and now am enjoying the beginning of my leader stage. Not sure if all the steps could switch order like that, but certainly these 2 can! At least, in my opinion.
    Thanks for another fun piece of food for thought!

  3. Mark Franklin September 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    What about those of us who want the Contributor role to run through all our career path? Many people identify the desire to help and contribute right from the start of their career, though the way they do so, and their potential change over time. I do like the 5 stages you’ve identified and really looking forward to talking to you about this on our Career Buzz radio interview on Sept. 14. Thanks! -Mark

  4. Mark A McKenney @MarktheSpaMan September 13, 2011 at 10:44 pm #

    Interesting perspective Jeremy, thanks for bringing it to our attention. It’s reminiscent Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In my case I have gone from the “outside” to the “inside”. First working for many years in high end menswear selling in ‘At His Service’ at Bloomingdale’s New York to Ermenegildo Zegna at the Bal Harbour Shops in South Florida and $5,000 suits. I was never going to live that ‘lifestyle’ only sell it. Then 10 years ago I answered an newspaper ad for the Upledger Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida not knowing what it was. Well that lead to work on the “inside” working with massage and bodywork therapists leading to wellness and spa learning to make healthy choices for myself and teach others. I have enjoyed this period perhaps in the “creator” stage as you mention. Unfortunately due to the recession and economic difficulties I have had to ‘go back’ to earlier stages just to try to make a living.

    I believe that I will eventually get back on track to the last two stages soon and join you in contributing and promoting what what we all like individually and collectively in “wellness”.

    Keep up the good writings.

    Mark A McKenney
    Dallas, Texas

  5. charles wills September 14, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Great post Jeremy,
    You hit it good, being of service (contributor) is of the Highest order in life. Blessed R those that R of service to others.
    Love Always Wins, It’s the L.A.W.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) September 14, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

    Eric, I have seen you speak before on Unconditional Positive Regard and I think your message is spot on for the spa industry. You might be interested in this article from Positive Psychology News Daily on recent research on Love and possible workplace applications.

    If you read the comments in the article you will see I got into a bit of a debate about the role and importance of love in the workplace and I have to say my thinking on this is at least in some part inspired by your teachings! Thanks for doing what you do!

  7. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) September 14, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    Marie-Josee, That is exactly why I was interested in hearing other people’s paths. I’m sure there are many stories different than mine and I know enough of your work to see you on exactly the progression that you described.

    Mark also mentioned starting right at the contributor stage.

    The funny thing is, this whole article came about because I was referring to the Jobs/Careers/Callings research in the training programs I developed and was talking about the “evolution” from a Job to a Career to a Calling. Lisa Sansom (fellow MAPPster and PP consultant) who was helping me on the project rightly pointed out that the research doesn’t say anything about an evolution, it says that people have these different perspectives in a variety of different lines of work, presumably at different points in their career.

    I realized it is only because of how my own career progressed that I see it as a natural evolution, but I’m not sure how many people would share this same progression with me.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) September 14, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    Hi Mark, thanks for sharing your story. Interesting how you see yourself going from the “outside” to the “inside”. It sounds to me like you are also expressing yourself as a Contributor since you seem to see the greater impact you make on the “inside” vs. the “outside.” But your story also shows that there are external factors at play that sometimes change the path before you while you are on it.

  9. Marie-Josee Shaar September 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    The desire to contribute is what motivates me everyday as well, Mark, and so in a way I could also argue that I started at that stage. Yet, to me, starting as a contributor means something very different than what Jeremy describes. If you try to contribute before you’ve really earned, learned and led, then your ability to have impact on others and the world is much reduced. So that would be a different thing altogether. I think you are talking more about an intention running through the stages, as opposed to a stage in itself. So the way I see it, when you reach the contributor stage, having had an intention to contribute all along, you really have achieved your life’s purpose. Does that make sense?


  10. Mark A McKenney @MarktheSpaMan September 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    Thank you for your comments Jeremy and Marie-Josee. It would be interesting to learn or hear more about Jeremy’s Jobs/Careers/Callings research/ training programs and/or the radio program that he was on. I like his perspective because of his background first in health and fitness then later in spa and then encompassing all wellness. Yes Marie-Josee you explain it from a Zen-like perspective; you must go through [like you wrote] earning, learning and leading before you come through to the other side to contributor level and perhaps achieving you life’s purpose. Thank you for taking the time to respond back!

  11. Sara Firman September 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    These are interesting stages to contemplate and I’ve been touched by the sharing that followed.

    I found myself wondering if, when presented as a progression, the stages reflect the way our culture is set up regards Career path.

    Each of us has a Calling, though for some it is devalued, suppressed or lost along the linear path of education, the hierarchy of profession, the necessity of job.

    If we’re lucky we recover our Calling, sometimes against all odds and often against the current of the Career we thought we were embarked upon.

    I think humans are natural Learners, natural Creators and natural Contributors from day one.

    We become Earners and sometimes Leaders according to a system that doesn’t always reflect worth.

    Ideally we’d all and always earn/ receive our fair share, never stop learning, lead and follow according to a natural rhythm, be ever-creative, contribute and feel valued equally.

    Perhaps then more people would feel satisfied in their lives, and have a sense that they belonged and mattered. The life we created together would feel like ‘ours’.

    My story very briefly …

    As a child I wanted to be a writer (because I adored the shape of words) and then a doctor (mainly and naively because I knew I could convey calm to those who were afraid).

    After university (botany/ genetics), as an editor of scientific publications I entered Jeremy’s Earner phase. (I earned more than I do now 30 years later.)

    Dismayed by medicine/ science, I went on a long quest for the meaning of healing – Learner. I’m always questing and often its a deep underground sort of journey.

    Though often called to be a Leader, I’ve always feared it would require me to give up my freedom. Then my partner suggested that one could Lead by Embodying. I liked that.

    Creator and Contributor are impulses I can’t hold back but more widely manifesting the results of them may well require me to be more of a willing Leader than I have been.

    And then, in the end, it may not be all up to us and our own efforts. There’s the idea of our soul’s plans and of the unseen daimon that guides us if we slow down to listen.

  12. Reb September 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    Hey Jeremy.
    Interesting post, as always. I’ll echo some of the other comments in saying that my first reaction was that, while I like the categories and found them to be distinctly descriptive of a range of experiences, the idea of putting them in sequence didn’t sit right with me. I agree with the others that different people might start at different points along this line. I’d actually venture to say that most of us do not star thinking about work as a tool for earning. Think of little kids and when we ask them who they want to be when they grow up. Firefighters, dancers, baseball players – these dreams come directly from intrinsic interest, not from a desire to fund other interests. This also sparked two other questions / thoughts for me. First is about the notion of leadership and creation being, by nature, higher order than following or responding. Should everyone aspire to be a leader or creator? What if I most enjoy my work when I’m responding to a crisis, or solving a problem that’s been presented to me? I think our culture sometimes places so much value on leaders and creators that it pushes people who are at their best when they are second or third in command to pursue the top spot just for the sake of being at the top. I like the way Marty talks about how we need to study “followership” just as much as leadership. Because if we’re all leaders, then none of us will actually have anyone following us. That leads me to my second thought/question. Do you think these categories work as well for people who work in trades or other non-professional fields? Do people who like working with their hands, whether building custom bicycles or doing landscaping or other similar crafts, necessarily aspire to becoming leaders? Of course some do want to be known as leaders in their fields, but others seem to just want to focus on enjoying the task at hand. These are the folks I sometimes think of who are either pushed into managing when they’d rather be building, or they try to start their own company and realize they don’t want to spend the time on the admin because they’d rather be doing the hard labor. I’d say someone who recognizes that a role other than leader or creator is the best fit for their strengths is more evolved than someone who moves into leading and creating against their own strengths and interests. Just thinking out loud here because your article got my mind going. Thanks for the spark.

  13. Mary Jane Boholst September 19, 2011 at 4:51 am #

    Hi Jeremy,
    Great article. It reminded me of a book I read recently, Making Work Work for the Highly sensitive person by Barrie Jaeger. Perhaps it would be an interesting read for you.
    Take care,

  14. Jeremy McCarthy September 24, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    Great comments from everyone. Wonderful words of wisdom from Reb and Sara that have definitely changed my thinking on this. Your comments are worthy of a follow up article (which maybe one of you wants to write?) Sara, you definitely open my eyes to the cultural pressure to follow a certain hierarchical path that may actually supress rather than promote the true growth of our potential. And Reb’s example of how we think about “work” as a child is a great reminder of what that potential looks like before it has been slottted into the norms of society. I love these ideas. Thanks for expanding my horizons.

  15. Kathy Gabriel September 25, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Hello Jeremy

    Interesting and useful perspectives … appreciate the stages outlined.

    I am inclined to think of these stages as intersecting rather than linear.
    At various points in our careers we find ourselves in at least two or three of these ‘stages’ simultaneously, maybe even more; either being thrust into or voluntarily taking on responsibilities. That has been my experience.

    I even tried intersecting your career stages, like sets in maths … the center was tiny, but maybe that’s where the power lies. At the center of it all may be where we find what makes us tick … that spark that others recognize in us and we in ourselves, that may eventually become a flame.

    I’m learning a whole lot from my ‘arm-chair’, right now! Also hoping that through my blog and other efforts, I’m making a worthwhile contribution, since the “career path” was transformed into a career trail.

    Great discussion!


  16. Jeremy McCarthy September 25, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    I agree with you. Although I describe this as being fairly linear I’m sure it is much more complex than that and will be different for different people as illustrated in some of the comments. Thanks for adding to the rich discussion that this article generated!

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