When I was 17 I took my first job during high school to earn some money for my holidays with friends. I was standing in the pouring rain handing out leaf-lets about electric toothbrush.

After a couple of days of simple work I earned already enough money to go on holidays.

This is having a job.

A few years later after I graduated from the university I was looking for a company that would hire me so I could start my real career. After a couple of months of searching, I finally got one. I was very ambitious and I was working very hard. Quickly I made a promotion from Office Manager to Accountant and than to Finance Manager. Later on, I moved to the Netherlands and continued my career there. I had a dream career. I was travelling around the world, doing the work I liked, had a great boss and team, had a fancy car and a good salary.

This is having a career.

After my first daughter was born, the house of cards of my career collapsed. All the years spent on building my career, the efforts and energy I put in additional studies were gone. I no longer wanted my career. I wanted something else. Back then I didn’t exactly know what it was, but I know now. I wanted to have a calling. I wanted to contribute and feel that my work had true meaning.

And I found it!

Two years after quitting my career and being a stay-home mum, I started my professional path in the coaching business. In the past years I have helped more than 100 people to discover their own professional path. I am able to combine my unique gift of listening, while having a passion for human development. My life mission is to help others to build their own extraordinary, meaningful professional paths.

This is having a calling.

Maslow’s pyramid of human needs

 About 90 percent of my clients come to me with the same issue. They discover that they have outgrown their career and feel the need to do something else, something that is bigger than them.

So how does it happen that we no longer want the career we so carefully designed for ourselves over the years?

Do you remember the pyramid of needs of Abraham Maslow?

Maslow was an American psychologist who came up with the psychological theory on how and what motivates us human’s to reach our full potential. He described his theory in details in the book “Hierarchy of Needs: A Theory of Human Motivation”.

Initially he came up with 5 needs that drive us towards psychological development: physiological, safety, love, esteem and self-actualization. Later he added 3 more: cognitive, aesthetic and transcendental needs.

Here they are:

  • Physiological needs such as sleep, food, shelter, drink
  • Safety needs such as security, protection, order, rules
  • Belonging and love needs: love, family, relationships, belonging
  • Esteem needs: respect, achievement, status, reputation
  • Cognitive needs: knowledge
  • Aesthetic needs such as beauty, art, nature, music
  • Self-actualization needs: personal growth, self-development, self-perfection
  • Transcendental needs: helping others, spiritual needs.

In order for us to want to satisfy a particular need, the previous need has to be met. So in other words we only want to go higher in achieving our needs once the previous one(s) have been met.

The theory also shows that it is our true nature to want to develop further and further.

Our needs & professional path

For the purpose of this article I will focus on the following needs: physiological, safety, love, esteem, self-actualization and self-transcendence and link them to professional path.

 I often hear from my clients, and I have experienced myself, that they feel guilty for wanting more. They have a career that many of their family members or friends would die for, but they themselves don’t want it anymore. They ask me ‘how can I be so spoilt’?

But as the theory shows it has nothing to do with being spoilt, and it has everything to do with this huge inner urge to develop ourselves, to help others and to make an impact.

The Maslow’s needs theory can be perfectly applied to demonstrate the development of our professional path (as I showed with my own example in the beginning of the article).

Job level

When we have a job we are mainly motivated by the three following basic needs

  1. Physiological needs

Your first primary motivation to get a job is to be able to provide for your basic needs. So you need a job to buy food, pay the bills etc.

  1. Safety needs

Once you have paid the bills, you start to look further. You want a job that would give you a feeling of security. You want to have a permanent contract; you want to feel safe in your workplace.

  1. Belonging needs

Once the two basics are covered, you start to look for the social aspect. You start to notice that it is important to have a nice team and nice boss around you. You want to work in a place that you feel you belong to and feel accepted.

Career level

Once all the above needs are met, you go to the whole next level, called career. At this level all the previous needs are met, and you want to go further.

  1. Esteem needs

This is the level where your needs of success and recognition come to play. You want to feel recognized by your boss and others for your achievements. You want to feel that you are successful. This level is also very connected to the status. So we crave all the things that demonstrate the status such as fancy job titles, company cars etc. We want to show to ourselves and to others that we matter. Many of our family members and friends can be jealous of us having a thriving career.

Although it lies in our nature to develop, many of us stay at this level. Why? Because it requires the right environment, open mind and a determined character to achieve the higher needs of self-actualization.

But when you look at extremely successful people, who really fully accomplished that level, you notice that many of them don’t stop here. Look at Bill Gates, Richard Branson and other accomplished people.

What did they do when they accomplished that level?

They started to give back. They started to help others. And they did that because it is our natural need. Our true nature is to develop ourselves further. And we can do that by contributing to others.

Calling level

“What a man can be, he must be.” A. Maslow

This level is about us combining our talents, passions & purpose. Some of you might argue that this can be also part of our career. Yes, it might. But I want to make a clear distinction here as career being clearly focused on achievement and status while calling being focused on contribution. And surely I know many people who reached the top level while all other below levels are also met.

  1. Self-actualization & Self-transcendence needs

The last two levels are my favorite levels.

When we combine them we do not have a job or career anymore, we have a calling. This is what I myself strive for everyday and what many of my clients consciously or subconsciously desire. At this level big magic happens.

What is the distinction between self-actualization and self-transcendence? Self-actualization is the level where we can express ourselves through our talents and apply them to the topics that we are passionate about. The self-transcendence needs are about fulfilling our higher purpose through contribution to others.

When looking at self-actualization, we feel the need to express ourselves through our work. That means doing work that is based on our core strengths.

We all have unique talents, strengths or gifts, which we are born with. But we do not always use it.

In the corporate western world there is a huge drive to continuously improve our weaknesses, so focusing on the weak part instead of the strong part. By doing that we forget and often lack the energy to focus still on our core talents.

Only by striving to perfect our strengths we can experience a so-called ‘flow’ moment. The flow, as described by another great psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a moment in which we are so emerged in an activity that we loose track of time and place.

And finally the last level is the one where our self-transcendence needs are crying to be met. We want to leave the legacy, we want to rise above ourselves and help others grow. In whatever capacity or form, we are feeling the need of using our gifts in this time and place not only to make our lives better but also to make the lives of other people, creatures, or nature better.

This level is about having an impact and about truly contributing. This is the level where we transcendent above our own needs.

Couple of words on guilt & needs

So as you can see our psychology works in such a way that we only go higher when our needs one by one are being met. Different people around us are at different levels. In order to get free of your feeling of guilt you need to first recognize on which level of the Maslow pyramid you are, and on which level are those closest to you. People who are pretty low on the pyramid will most of the time have a hard time understanding why you want to go up.

So now back to you

Below you will find a couple of questions and steps to help you figure out where you are.

  1. Where do you see yourself on the pyramid?
  2. Which needs are being met in your current work?
  3. Do you feel the need to go higher?
  4. What do you have now: job, career or calling?
  5. Where do you want to go from there?

In an ideal world you would go from having a job, to having a career and than pursuing your calling or life mission. But life is often not perfect. Be aware that it is very difficult to sit at the top while the other needs are not met (specially the basic needs). So if you are fulfilling your life mission but it is not paying your bills it is ok to pursue still your life mission as long as you have other ways of financing your bills.

One of my clients resigned from her career (high function in the corporation) and took a much simpler job, which pays the bills in order to follow her life mission, saving the nature.

My other client realized that what once was his calling (working for an NGO) turned into flipping papers and had to redefine how does he want to contribute to the world using his talents. He is now a social entrepreneur.

A different client switched her career from a big corporation to academia, which much better fulfills her strengths and passion for learning.

So as you can see all is possible. What’s your next step? Share in the comments below!

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash