06/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Are You Serving a Calling or Feeding a Craving?

If you are like many high-achieving women I know, you want more from your company than the promise of promotions and raises (or just making money if your business is your own). If you don't feel recognized for doing something important, you either move on or you have your resume updated for when the economy turns around. However, you know that if you stay too long in a job where you lose this sense of value, you will feel as if you are suffocating.

The problem lies in knowing how to define what gives you this sense purpose intrinsically instead of relying on a good evaluation to give it to you. In other words, if you can't articulate what activities give you fulfillment, you leave the assessment of your value to other people's judgment. You end up relying on your clients or managers to tell you if your work is important and good.

If you don't get this external validation, you might impulsively start looking for something else or you take on more projects looking for the one that will stand out. One of my clients said, "I take on so many projects I feel like I'm playing Whack-a-Mole. I whack away because every project seems important and I can't tell which one will win the prize."

If you depend on external validation to define your significance, you end up confusing your desire to feel fulfilled with your need for recognition. When people thank you for your contribution, you might think you feel fulfilled when you are just pleased that they noticed how much you know and how hard you worked. Not only will your pleasure be fleeting but you will find out that people are fickle when it comes to saying thanks. You might get scores of great comments on your blog one week and two half-hearted notes the next.

If you let a less-than-stellar response steer you away from your life's work, it may take years before you rediscover what ignites your passion. Therefore, you shouldn't use applause, praise, or smiley icons to dictate your purpose. It's easy to be seduced by the adoration you get from your good work. When the attention wanes, do you give up and move on? You need a consistent theme that serves to focus your energy regardless of other people's opinions.

Donna Zajonc, author of The Politics of Hope, calls this the difference between "having a calling vs. feeding a craving." A calling is driven by standing for what you believe and deriving pleasure from the work you consistently create. A craving is driven by getting attention and recognition for the good work you produce.

Callings stir your pride and gratitude even if circumstances are frustrating and disheartening in the process. Cravings leave you feeling resentful and judgmental at the end of the day and easily offended when someone doesn't appreciate what you do. A calling keeps you moving in a specific direction. Cravings can leave you feeling lost and uncertain about your path.

The best indicator that you are serving a calling is when you can learn to not care about what other people think. You know you are making a difference on some scale. Some people won't get or appreciate what you do. Ah well.

My good friend and amazing thinker, Dr. Christine McDougall calls this, "...the opportunity for enlightened tension." Dr. McDougall writes and teaches tirelessly about the power of knowing and speaking your truth and then standing by it no matter what anyone else says. This includes being able to listen and understand another's point of view even if you don't like it.

"When everyone agrees with us, it's lovely," Dr. McDougall says, "but nothing actually happens except we all pat each other on the back. It's during those conversations when there is a form of dissonance, or tension, that we enter a dialogue that invites us to open to new ways of thinking and being...At the same time, be sure to build the boundaries against outright attacks and to know the difference between the two."

Therefore, be careful when you are choosing to take a job or project or leave one behind because it will not feed your craving for recognition. Will staying where you are and standing for what you believe better serve your purpose in the long run? Living with the tension is essential to integrity.

The key then is to discover for yourself what gives you a sense of purpose distinct from your need for recognition. There may overlap but you need to do your best to discover what having a sense of purpose feels like to you. Then you can recognize what ignites these feelings. Once you identify what actions spark not just fulfillment but deep passion, you can test whether your current situation is a roadblock or a step on your purposeful path. You might even choose to stay in the face of tension instead of deciding to move on.

  1. Are you serving a calling or feeding a craving? If both, which gets more of your energy?
  2. Would you be doing anything differently if you didn't care what people thought?
  3. Are you compromising your freedom and energy in any way to boost your reputation?
  4. Are you encouraging others (children, friends, partners) to build a reputation before they discover their passion?

Think about these questions. Please post your thoughts for others to see and respond.

Adapted from Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, June 2010).