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When Doing the “Right” Thing is Less Than the Best

By May 2, 2000July 12th, 2023Career6 min read

“I’ve never been so excited about school. I look forward to every class session. I’m even doing the optional reading.”

Those seldom-heard words encourage any teacher, including me. But this enthusiastic student wasn’t talking about the management course I was teaching. She was referring to two other classes – one in American literature and the other in philosophy. Clearly a light had come on for her.

“So you’re becoming a liberal arts major,” I foolishly asked.

“Oh no! I’m going to stay in accounting.”

More confused than usual, I just sat there waiting for an explanation.

“My Mom and Dad said they would kill me if I spent four years in college and couldn’t get a job when I graduated.”

After graduation, she took an entry-level accounting job in a mid-sized company. Equipped with youth, charm, and the enthusiasm that comes with a first job, she did OK. But a couple of years into the job, restlessness and boredom set in. In her heart of hearts, she had no passion for accounting. Soon she was unhappy and resentful about the reasonable expectation made by her organization. And she was angry she was doing work that sucked her spirit away. Soon her performance lagged. This outstanding individual had lost her passion, her sense of worth, and her life direction.

Everything this great kid did was responsible. No doubt her parents were proud. She too was pleased with herself for doing the right thing. And yet she ended up miserable and in jeopardy of losing her job.

She had arrived in a place not too unfamiliar to many of us. This same phenomenon happens all the time in family business – especially with the children of family business owners.

Vocation is a concept making a comeback these days, as many individuals find the American dream of financial success and conspicuous consumption less than satisfying. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word, vocare, which means “call.” While many individuals may have the same job, few share the same calling.

Novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner says vocation is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” To discover and practice your calling is one way of “giving voice” to your life. Vocation is about that which is within your heart and soul.

Unfortunately, many people ignore vocational calling out of a sense of responsibility and practicality. But “doing the right thing” and ignoring our vocational calling eventually deprives us of our very spirit.

Philosopher Joseph Campbell was terse when he said, “I think the person who takes a job in order to live, that is to say, just for the money, has turned himself into a slave.” Many children of family business owners have become slaves to keep Mom and Dad happy.

Ignoring one’s vocational calling is costly. Parker Palmer makes a disturbing observation in his book, The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass, l998). “When I follow only the oughts, I may find myself doing work that is ethically laudable but not mine to do. A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self – in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm. When I violate myself, I invariably end up violating the people I work with.”

Periodically, everyone should conduct a vocation check-up. Take a bit of time and consider the following:

  • Every person has a unique vocational calling.
  • There is no hierarchy of vocations. An entrepreneur’s calling is no loftier than the calling of a school-cafeteria worker. In fact, I’ve known cafeteria worker more at peace with their calling than extremely successful entrepreneurs.
  • It is not necessary to have a job to live out your calling. There are considerable work-at-home parents, retired adults and students who “give voice” to their calling everyday.
  • Calling is not always done “out there.” Sometimes it happens within the very walls in which we live.
  • Calling sometimes changes during one’s lifetime – for some, several times.
  • Evidence of calling is often ignored because we don’t know better. Gifts, successes, passions, people that give you energy and personal interest all point toward an individuals personal calling.
  • It takes a lifetime to discover and fine-tune one’s personal calling.

How do you know if you are living your calling? I don’t know all the answers, but I do have one clue. When you find yourself in the middle of something and have lost all sense of time, and you are doing work, and your energy is high, and your mind is razor sharp and you are having the time of your life, and the moment feels magic – maybe even holy – you’re close!

So, what does all this have to do with family business owners? Actually, quite a bit! Family issues, especially as business owner’s children finish school and enter or consider entering the business. Hopefully you have pre-thought and pre-listened regarding the role of your children and their future in the business. Consider the following.

  1. Talk to your children about their desire to enter or not enter the business – sooner rather than later. It is amazing how often parents are astonished and hurt when a child refuses to enter the business. Likely, they have never sensed a pull toward the business. Don’t ignore your children’s sense of calling. If a son or daughter can’t fulfill their calling in the context of the family business, do the business, yourself, and them a favor – don’t hire them. Don’t force your children into the business.
  2. If and when your children do enter the business, let them know from the beginning that your relationship is not depended upon their success in the business.
  3. Remember their personal calling and sense of success is greater than your desire for them to enter the business.
  4. Be very clear regarding what you want and equally clear what your child wants. When it comes to calling and career, you child knows best.
  5. Pay them a good, competitive salary. Notice I said competitive, not outrageous. Almost every day, adult family members working in the business say to me, “I hate what I am doing, but I make $160,000 a year. The best I can do on the open market is $60,00 a year. I can’t live on that little amount of money.” Children making $160,000 when they should be making $60,000 feel like frauds. Feeling fraudulent leads to low esteem and poor performance
  6. If you want to share your wealth with children in the business, don’t do it by paying them excessive salaries or “over the top” benefits or bonuses. Give them money or stock in the business via a blind trust that can’t be touched for several years. Golden handcuffs aren’t just for Fortune 500 companies. In fact, parents are far better at applying handcuffs than any corporation has ever been. The last thing a business owner wants is a child working in the business feeling trapped.
  7. Understand and say often your love for them is not based on meeting

The family aspect of business is really sledding. But, it can be managed. Good solutions can be found or created for all involved. But, successful solutions can’t occur if parents and children don’t talk to each other about vocational plans, desires and dreams. Charlie Shedd says, “If it’s mentionable, it is manageable.” So, get to talking . . . and listening.

Dan Pryor is a valued friend of ReGENERATION Partners. Dan’s consulting work is centered on issues of leadership, learning, feedback, personal calling and creativity. He also publishes the newsletter SPEEDBUMPS. If you would like to see a copy of this indescribably delicious little gazette, contact Dan at