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Career vs. job: What’s the difference & which do you have?

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Jim was an agency manager for a major U.S insurer that sold life, health, and long-term disability insurance to families and businesses. He joined the company straight out of college and spent over 50 years with them managing an agency in the Southeast. He often proudly proclaimed, “This is the only job I’ve ever had.”

Some would argue that while Jim may have started a job with the company many years ago, he finished with a career. What’s the difference? It may be more glaring than you think.

Let’s investigate the difference between a job and a career. Discovering what makes one different from the other may help you clarify and prioritize your professional future.

What is the difference between a job and a career?

Job definition

A job is much more than a means of getting a paycheck — it’s a mindset. Consider the story of Tom and Bill.

Tom and Bill went to work for the Central Pacific Railroad on the same day laying track in the early days of the railroad. While Tom spent his entire career doing the same physical labor day after day, Bill rose through the ranks and, thirty years later, became the president of the railroad.

When asked why he climbed the ladder and ultimately ended up running the company, Bill replied, “30 years ago, Tom went to work laying track. I went to work for the Central Pacific Railroad.”

Two people who started with the same duties went to work every day with different mindsets. Tom worked for an hourly wage — he had a job. Bill was also paid by the hour, but in his mind, he was helping to build a railroad and a country.

[ Related: Salary vs. hourly pay: Pros, cons & key differences to know ]

Career definition

A career can be likened to a long-term mission.

Like in Bill’s case, a career can be “other-centered.” It can be focused on helping a company, department, or team perform the best they’re capable of — a mission of sorts. When Bill worked, he envisioned a railroad transporting people and goods across the country, while Tom was focused on his next paycheck.

Though it doesn’t sound nearly as altruistic, a career can also be “self-centered.” Someone can be singularly focused on climbing the corporate ladder and have a career, much like our agency manager Jim, who joined his company as an agent specializing in health and short-term disability insurance.

Jim worked exceptionally hard as an agent to get promoted to Unit Manager, where he managed a team of agents. While he was in that position, Jim made himself very visible as a leader, with his primary motive being to be promoted to the position of Agency Manager. Finally, after six years of excelling in the Unit Manager slot, Jim was rewarded with the promotion he coveted and spent many happy years in his career as an agency manager.

Can a job become a career?

Many people do start with a job and end up with a career — like Janet.

Janet was always conscientious and respected as a hard worker by any company she worked for. She always had a job and performed well enough to get regular raises.

Unfortunately, Janet stumbled and fell upon hard times. She lost several jobs and went through a period of prolonged unemployment and deep depression. She later said, “I was so low, the only way I could look was up.”

Desperately needing a job, Janet took what she considered the most menial job she’d ever had — cleaning restrooms and taking out the trash at a fast food restaurant. But, Janet was thankful for the work and became determined to become the best restroom cleaner the chain had ever had.

It was that determination that turned Janet’s job into a career. Because of her commitment to excel at her job, her manager saw great potential in Janet. He began mentoring Janet and promoted her to several different positions over the next four years.

Not only did Janet commit to a career with the restaurant chain, she ultimately became a franchise owner and helped many others develop successful careers.

Do you have a job or career?

While there is no right or wrong answer to this question, knowing which one you possess is essential if you have long-term goals.

Let’s look at a few other questions you can ask yourself to figure out if you have a job or a career.

Am I only working for the money?

If you’re only working for a paycheck, you very likely have a job. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Maybe you’re in a position where you accepted short-term contract work for good pay. Or, you have family obligations that have led you to a nice job but not something you’d consider a career.

It happens.

Where do I see myself in five years?

“Where do you see yourself in five years” is more than just one of the stalest interview questions you’ll ever be asked; it’s an excellent self-examination question. If you have a definitive answer to this question, you either have a career or have identified one.

People with a job typically don’t have a vision for their future. Instead, they’re concerned with the current pay period and not looking at their long-term growth potential.

Do I love what I do?

If you love what you do professionally, you are probably enjoying a career or have a job that may evolve into a career. Unfortunately, people who just have a job usually aren’t thrilled when Monday rolls around; they’re already counting the days until the weekend.

What if you have a job but want a career?

If you can’t seem to hit your stride and are still saying, “It’s just a job,” you may want to find a mentor or career counselor who can help. A skilled mentor or counselor can help you discover things about your career calling that you may be missing. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

Be patient with yourself if you haven’t found your ideal career yet. Very few people are like Jim and end up with a career right out of school. Trial and error are often involved, and sometimes a bit of luck.

[ Related: The benefits of upskilling & reskilling, explained ]

The information and content provided herein is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered legal, tax, investment, or financial advice, recommendation, or endorsement. Breeze does not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, reliability or usefulness of any testimonials, opinions, advice, product or service offers, or other information provided here by third parties. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

— Published July 13, 2022
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