Peter has written extensively about high sensitivity since 1997 when he learned he was an HSP.
This article is part of and ongoing series covering many different aspects of the joys and sorrows of living life as a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP. If you'd like more background information about high sensitivity-- as an innate trait-- I'd like to recommend that you visit my introductory article on this subject. You might also consider taking the free sensitivity self-test on Dr. Elaine Aron's web site-- it only takes about 5 minutes.
HSPs and the Importance of Meaningful Work
If you are a highly sensitive person, odds are you have a fairly idealistic nature-- most HSPs do. In addition, HSPs tend to seek "deep meaning" in their lives, and this tendency usually extends to their choice of work.
In general, we'd like to feel like the work we do is not only appreciated (and with something more than a paycheck!), but somehow contributes to the overall betterment of our community, or society, or the world in general.
"Conventional workplaces" are often not very good matches for HSPs. We often find ourselves in situations where we're toiling away in unfriendly or even hostile environments where our sensitivities are broadly ignored or marginalized and the work we do feels largely meaningless or like it doesn't matter. Ultimately, we can end up feeling depressed about our work situation and then perhaps leave in search of something more meaningful. Many HSPs have long histories of "job hopping," as part of their quest to find some kind of work that appeals to them.
I previously wrote about the difficulties HSPs face at traditional work places, and they can be many. The bottom line-- for most highly sensitive people-- is that if we are to truly find meaning and happiness in our work (and subsequently our lives) we must attempt to find our true "Calling," and then create the work space that allows us to pursue it.
Because HSPs feel things more deeply (and often tend to ruminate on them!), persisting in a work environment we don't like and don't feel good about can lead not only to frequent overstimulation, but also to depression, loss of self-esteem and even to physical ailments.
Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person
What exactly IS a True Calling, in a work context?
We sometimes hear and read about people who are pursuing their "true calling" with their work... but what does that actually mean?
In her landmark book, "Making Work Work for the Highly Sensitive Person," Dr. Barrie Jaeger talks about the three different kinds or "stages" of work: Drudgery, Craft and Calling. If you don't already own this book, and are in the process of evaluating or redefining your work life, I highly recommend that you buy it now!
Drudgery-- as the name suggests-- is the kind of dreary, meaningless and soul-draining work many people get stuck in for years and years. We find ourselves drained at the end of the work day; by the time we get home we are too exhausted to do any of the things we really like, and when morning rolls around we often dread getting up and going to work. Sometimes we'll even "call in sick," just so we don't have to go to work. Work can be "drudgery" for a variety of reasons-- meaninglessness, long hours, hostile environment, overly competitive, lack of job security, abusive bosses and co-workers, unpleasant job surroundings, greedy corporate culture and more... and is often accompanied by a sense of resignation and despair... often paired with the thought (especially in a poor economy) that "we can't afford to leave."
Craft-- represents a kind of "half-way mark" between Drudgery and a Calling. A "Craft" level job typically has its good points and its bad. Maybe the work is boring, but fairly well-paid, and you get to "telecommute" from home, three days a week. Most likely, the job has more than a few drudgery aspects, but there are also good parts that make it bearable to go to work. Occasionally there are some bright spots that keep us from getting disgruntled. This kind of work doesn't necessarily hang over us like a heavy, dark gray cloud-- but if we walked away from it tomorrow, there's not much we'd miss about it.
True Calling-- is the perfect job. Common things I hear from HSPs working in their Calling generally include statements that "it doesn't feel like work," and "I can't believe I actually get PAID to do this!" It's the type of work we all wish we could have... the kind of work that actually makes us look forward to the challenges of the next day.
But whereas we can often imagine what this kind of work might feel like, it's not always clear just what our Calling might be.
Identifying your Calling: Beginnings
A lot of times, we are very aware of what we do not want-- we recognize a bad (or suboptimal) work situation-- but we remain "stuck" there because we don't really know what we do want, instead. We may have a peripheral awareness of "things we'd really like to do," but have no sense of how to get from simply "liking" something to turning it into an income generating profession.
Actually identifying your calling can be trickier than you might expect. Certainly, some people know right away that they "always wanted to be a herbalist." However, for most of us, there's a general sense of activities we really like-- but we can't always think of a job to match. Sometimes we might even find ourselves in a situation and think things like "Wow, wouldn't it be amazing if I could get paid to do THAT?!?" but we're locked into thinking about "work" within the rather narrow confines of "professions we have heard of and are familiar with."
Unfortunately, there is no set way for identifying your calling, but one of the first things to do is throw away the "rule book" about what we think jobs "look" like. You have probably heard the expression "thinking outside the box?" Well, let's throw out "the box," altogether!
Based on many years of observation, there is a very high likelihood that your Calling is something directly related to your five favorite things you loved doing when you were a child. What we truly care about, and what moves us deeply can generally be found by looking at our most "innocent" moments, when we are just happy and don't care what anyone else thinks about what we are doing.
Exercise: Childhood Activities That Made You Happy
A good exercise is to take a pad of paper and a pen, and take a long stroll down your personal "Memory Lane," taking notes as you go. Think back to your most joyful moments as a child; when you were a teen; when you were young(er). Try to really "sit inside" the memories. Think about what made you so happy; write down what you were doing, and how it felt. Also write down things you remember people telling you you were "really good at," and which made you feel good about yourself.
It doesn't matter if these things seem silly. It doesn't matter if the things seem to bear no relation to working. Just write down everything you remember. You don't have to do it all at once. Even after "thinking about it" for years, it still took me six weeks (and 30 sheets of notepaper!) to go through this actual exercise.
What you are ultimately looking for is patterns. Usually they appear all by themselves; often they are surprising; sometimes they are difficult to spot. During my own quest, I learned that I love to find things, and I am really good at it. I also really like to organize the things I find. That may not sound like a profession-- in such a simple form-- but it is actually what I went on to do for a living.
Examine "What Others are Saying"
You may also get some good ideas by taking a "time out" to consider what other people are saying about you-- in a positive way.
Do friends and family often come to you for help or guidance with some specific activity, event or need? And have you been told that they came to YOU because you always have "the best answers" or "the most creative solutions?" Sometimes what others seek us out for can be very helpful in guiding us towards our calling... whether it's our uncanny ability to see how they can best navigate a relationship issue... or removing viruses from their laptop computer in a fraction of the time the "Geek Squad" at local computer store could.
Whereas this exercise can be useful, there are some important caveats to keep in mind.
Don't mistake merely "being really good at" something for having found your calling. For example, I am "good at" accounting, bookkeeping and money management-- and have given people lots of time saving guidance in that area-- but it's an area of life I view as a "necessary evil," not something I "really enjoy." In order for something to be an actual Calling, you also must feel like it is a thoroughly enjoyable thing to do.
Be cynical and discerning-- in a healthy way. Are the people "seeking you out" for your abilities and commending you doing so because you truly excel... or because they are getting "a free lunch?" Although very perceptive, HSPs can sometimes be a little naïve about people's intentions.
Exercise: Describe Your Perfect Job
Another good exercise is to take several days (to several weeks) to simply journal on the topic of describing your "perfect job."
Forget your knowledge and prejudices about work for a moment; suspend your own disbelief and simply write about your perfect work situation without any boundaries. Describe it in detail, including what your work day is like, what you actually do, how it feels to be working at this job, and how others respond to you, while you're doing this work. Think about how it would feel when you get done with your work day.
There's a good chance that somewhere in the course of writing you'll discover that what you're actually writing about something that "sounds a lot like" a profession you actually know exists. I may take a little while to figure it out.
Keep in mind that these exercises are not designed to give you a definitive answer, just to point you in the right direction and hopefully give you lots of ideas.
From Idea to Work or Business
Sometimes the biggest challenge in the process comes when you end up with a bunch of ideas from the "memory" and "perfect job" exercises, and none of them strike you as very much of a "profession" or "business." And you certainly can't imagine that anyone would hire you to do them, for pay.
The good news is that HSPs-- as a group-- tend to be exceptionally creative, so "thinking outside (the proverbial) box" is generally not a stretch for us. Still, we sometimes can't quite fathom what to do with "I really liked playing with the dog," as far as work goes. Maybe the obvious choice seems to be "become a veterinarian," but maybe the idea of all that education isn't appealing. And being a vet isn't exactly "playing" with dogs. So we have to get creative.
Maybe "Dog obedience trainer" gets closer to the mark. Then there's the option of being a pet sitter. Or a professional dog walker, although that generally requires a population center of some size. Or maybe it's dogs and working with people that appeals to you-- so maybe having a therapy dog you take to hospitals and retirement homes is the answer. Or maybe you could start a "salon" for dogs-- basically a place where people can come wash their dogs, without the mess of doing so at home.
If you get stuck at "I have an idea, but what do I DO with it," another good exercise is to just write down every single job description you can come up with that involves that idea. You can even sit down with your computer and Google and try your luck with different searches, like "jobs that involve dogs" and variations. Think about services people use, or things they buy. Remember, at this time you are still brainstorming-- nothing is final, yet.
Creating Your Own Perfect Job
In most cases, the pursuit of one's calling involves literally "creating" our perfect job-- and it may turn out to not be that different from the "perfect job" from the earlier journaling exercise.
Some people actually manage to do this through creating a "niche" within a larger company structure, where they succeed in persuading management that the job description that accommodates their calling will directly benefit the company. Alas, while they DO exist, such situations are not common.
The vast majority of HSPs who set out to pursue their work Calling end up getting involved in some form of self-employment. In fact, self-employment is widely regarded as one of the best work options for HSPs, overall... and "creating your own job" may not merely be the best-- but the only-- option that allows you to pursue your dreams.
As an example, my own love of "finding things" and "walking on the beach" turned into a business (now in its 9th year) through which I find and sell "found objects" from the beach to hundreds of jewelers and artists, all around the world. I also "find things" at garage sales and flea markets and resell them on eBay for a profit.
An HSP friend turned her love of nature and a passion for photography into a line of natural image greetings cards, calendars and original framed and signed art she now sells from an online shop. Another HSP friend turned a love of animals and an interest in photography into a pet and house sitting service. Her "personal trademark" is to leave clients a hand made photo card of their pets as a thank you note-- which often leads to her getting orders for the prints and cards.
There is almost no limit to what we can turn into a viable business, if we are willing to throw away our old ideas and biases of "what work looks like."
Change your life, change your work-- and vice versa
The common perception about the purpose of work is that we "must have work to support our lives." In its most basic interpretation, that does hold true.
However, in the context of pursuing one's calling, and being an often idealistic highly sensitive person... the reverse (surprisingly) also can hold true: We come to realize and embrace that our lives have to support our ideal work.
What does that mean?
As part of my own journey towards my work calling, I discovered that large parts of my life-- and lifestyle choices-- needed to be rearranged, in order for my calling to become a reality.
Using the most basic of metaphors, think of it this way: If you are living a life that "costs" $70,000 (or a certain amount of effort, or energy, or time, or psychic output), and your calling potentially "earns" $50,000... it may not be the shortfall in your calling that's the "problem," it could be excess in your life.
Although many HSPs are not oriented towards materialism, we can still have "too much" going on in our lives in other ways... such that our callings aren't possible, unless we make substantial changes to our lives, first.
It could be that we don't have sufficient time to pursue our calling because we've stretched ourselves too thin in giving time to help other people... for free. Could be that our calling requires a certain location-- city, country, climate, proximity ocean, etc-- and we aren't living there. So we may have create the "personal infrastructure" to support our calling, before we can even start working.
Callings and Non-monetary Income
One final consideration in the process of identifying and pursuing our work calling concerns compensation for our efforts.
Naturally, one of the primary reasons we work is to earn enough income to live-- pay the rent, buy food, transportation and hopefully have a little left over. However, when you work with your calling, you quickly discover that you are also receiving a lot of non-monetary rewards-- sometimes referred to as "psychic income"-- as a result of what you do.
For example, it is hard to place a monetary value on looking forward to your work, every day. It is also hard to place a monetary value on the general health benefits of feeling happy with your life. And you can't place a monetary value on the improved self-esteem that comes from feeling proud of what you do.
It could also be that your Calling will put an end to a job you commute an hour each way to, and instead means you work from home. There is a "value" in not having to commute (cost + time) that won't necessarily be paid to you as income, but still is very real.
So remember: These factors DO have a "value," and that is important to consider when you feel apprehensive that your calling might not earn you as much as your previous "drudgery" type job.
All in all, finding, identifying and pursuing your work calling is extremely important when you're an HSP. Because we HSPs tend to also be oriented towards a number of "non-monetary" rewards from work, we must pause and identify what truly matters to us.
Hopefully the preceding will help you on your way to finding or creating your ideal work situation. Please keep in mind that there is no great urgency or "timetable" that goes with this process. Whereas you may feel frustrated by your current work situation, it's best that you take your time and "get it right," rather than rush into something without sufficient deliberation. And finding your Calling is NEVER a "this'll do" proposition!
Sharing is Love! If you liked this article-- or found it useful-- please consider sharing it with others! The more people know about HSPs and their challenges, the better off we ALL are. You can use these nifty "social sharing" buttons out at left, and be part of spreading more awareness of the HSP trait! Thank you!
As an HSP, how is YOUR work life? Are you pursuing your true calling? Are you stuck in a dead-end job? Are you ready to change things?
Sharilee Swaity from Canada on January 22, 2016:
Thanks for this. I have been reading your writing for years now, and always appreciate your teachings. I am re-reading this hub now, with the desire to leave my teaching job in June, and pursue self-employment. I have done this before, but always go back to teaching.
This time, I want to make it stick, and realize I need a better plan. I love your examples of people who combined their interests together to create a career they love. The one about the lady who does nature cards is what I was thinking about, combined with writing. I have a few different interests and would like to do more than one side business.
Thanks for sharing, and have a wonderful day.
Sherri on July 31, 2015: