Parenting & Schools
Business
Happiness Exercises
Health
Relationships
Home » All, Business, Pathway 3 "Meaning", Taking Action

Stop Searching for Your Calling

By on November 20, 2013 – 12:23 pm  10 Comments

Genevieve Douglass, MAPP '10, is a positive psychology coach living in New York City. She considers her work to be helping individuals find their authentic selves. Read more on her web site. Full bio.

Her articles are here and here (with Shannon Polly).



From the time of the Ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages, work was considered something that got in the way of loftier pursuits of the mind and spirit. The term calling referred only to positions in the Church.

But Martin Luther, with the unfolding of the Protestant Reformation, broadened the definition and changed how people viewed work. He espoused the view that any productive type of work, if done earnestly, could please God and help society. (Just so you know, productive work didn’t include prostitution or usury.) John Calvin later added that calling is really when you’re using your God-given gifts for the benefit of mankind. Thus emerged what we hear of as the Protestant or Puritan work ethic.

Attitudes toward Work

In the last few years, the term calling has been used in psychology to describe a sense of working because you love the work, not for money or respect, but because it gives you a sense of meaning. About a third of people view their work this way, while a third of us see work as a career, something to build status and find constant achievement, and a third of us see work more the way the Ancient Greeks did, something we get through so that we can pursue our calling as a potato sculptor.

The lucky 33% of people who have a calling are more satisfied with their lives and jobs, have fewer health problems, feel more energetic, experience more meaning and significance from work, and miss fewer days of it. They also tended to make more money and think of themselves as having a higher social status than people with careers and jobs, so perhaps some jobs are more conducive to being callings than others. However, researcher Amy Wrzesniewki and her colleagues have found that even janitors can find meaning in the work.

A Longitudinal View of Callings

So how does one find a calling?

Researchers Shasa Dobrow and Jennifer Tosti-Kharas suggest that it might not be something you can find, but rather, something that develops. Instead of having a calling, it’s something that you experience. It may be that people who say they’ve found their calling are looking back on their life and creating a cohesive picture. This is part of our tendency to make meaning out of things retrospectively, but it fogs our ability to see how callings develop prospectively.

In Dobrow’s longitudinal research, not only does it seem that a calling develops, but it can also change throughout life. The participants in her study were teenagers when the study began, taking part in elite music summer camps. Over a period of seven years, Dobrow checked in to see how they felt as time passed and to find out what they went on to do in adulthood. To gauge their experience of calling, they indicated how strongly they felt in response to statements such as, ”Playing music is a deeply moving and gratifying experience for me,” “I would continue being a musician even in the face of severe obstacles,” and “I would sacrifice everything to be a musician.”

The people who started out with the strongest sense of calling were highly involved in music and felt particularly comfortable around musicians. They were pursuing things like membership in orchestras or chamber ensembles, and they took private lessons in addition to going to high school. They strongly agreed with statements such as, “I feel more comfortable around musicians than around any other group of people.”

But, this group, high in both musical activity and social comfort, experienced the steepest decrease in their sense of calling over time. It might be that as they discovered the real road to being a musician, they felt less excited about their path. Many of these kids wanted to land a job in an orchestra, and other research has found orchestra members low on job satisfaction. Regardless of the reason, it’s fascinating to see that sense of calling can change over time. You probably remember your first passion, but had to go a different route when your college didn’t offer a bachelor’s in magic.

What Does the Study Tell Us?

The main things that we can pull from this research are that:

  1. Calling, defined as a consuming, meaningful passion toward a domain, can change over time.
     
  2. If you’re involved in activities relating to a particular domain, you’re probably sniffing out something like a purpose.
     
  3. Signs that this might be the domain for you include feeling particularly comfortable around the people there, feeling that they understand you, feeling at home, and feeling that that you can completely be yourself.

What about Ability?

Wait a sec, don’t I need to be good at something?

The ability of the students did not predict their experience of calling. However, if they had a strong sense of calling, they tended to perceive their abilities to be strong, though not necessarily the other way around. You don’t need to be good objectively at your craft to experience it as a calling, but you probably think you are. Whose perception is the real one, anyway?

But Drummers Don’t Make Money

According to Dobrow and Tosti-Kharas, your calling does not have to be synonymous with your work. The participants in the study were still in school when they already felt so passionately about music. It may be that you feel your calling is being a parent, or tutoring kids for free in your spare time, or training overweight felines to run on large, expensive treadmills.

Martin Seligman holds that meaning comes from contributing to something greater than yourself. This probably means it’s important to be able to affect people with what you’re doing. So, McFly, you may never find your density if you don’t show anyone those science fiction stories.

However, there are more than a few people who have followed their lonely hearts, unappreciated by society at the time, later to be revered in history. A great one is Henry Darger, who was a janitor at a hospital, but secretly wrote and illustrated epic fantasy stories, which were only discovered after his death and are now worth many thousands of dollars. It’s hard to know if he experienced a sense of calling toward his work, but there must have been something driving him.

So, what does drive us?

To some, the definition of a calling might be daunting. It could be construed as a goal to be achieved. Goals are sometimes useful, but at the same time, if they are too specific and challenging, they can undermine the very curiosity that spurs us and replace it with fear, which narrows our attention, preventing us from seeing possibilities.

Sometimes it’s useful to narrow attention and create a preventative mindset, for example in motivating safety precautions. However when you’re doing something creative, and if you’re doing something challenging, it probably requires creativity, you want to be moved by your interest and curiosity, much like play. You want a vital and autonomous motivation, the feeling that this is something you are pulled to do. This is very much the kind of motivation described by people who experience a calling. “I don’t know what they could do that would make me leave. Even if I wasn’t getting paid, I’d still be here,” were the words of a zookeeper involved in a different study on calling.

It can also help to know that what we’re doing has some sort of impact on the world. Wharton professor Adam Grant did a study on university call center employees who were calling to raise money for scholarships. One group of callers got to spend 5 minutes being thanked by a student who had received a scholarship as a result of the call center’s efforts. Grant checked back a month later and found that the callers who had met the scholarship recipient persisted longer (142% more phone time) and performed better (171% more money raised). Creating a sense of meaning and significance is actually part of the definition of a calling.

Aside from your innate curiosity and hope to impact the world, the last big thing that galvanizes people is other people. Feeling like you belong, as Dobrow’s study attests, is a big source of motivation. (Remember how much you wanted Airwalks back in middle school just because everyone else had them?)

Why you can’t look for your calling

Doing creative work and focusing in on a goal (like picking out a purpose) are part of separate neural processes. The more engaged you are searching for your purpose, the less imaginative you can be, according to recent assimilations in neuroscience. Purpose is probably something that will require some inspiration. So, even though you know you want to write a book, the actual writing of the book can be hampered by aiming for a book. You just need to get on with the writing and ignore that it may or may not be a book. At some point you’ll want to pop your head up and see if you’re making any sense. But that’s a different mindset, best saved for a different time.

In other words, spending your time with your foot on the ship bow, your hand at your brow blocking the sun, hoping that your calling will appear, spouting like a sea sprite, is probably going to keep you from developing it. (Unless you feel called to pursue your calling, which I guess could happen.) In fact, pursuing such happiness can actually detract from being happy. It’s just like being in a relationship. If you’re still looking around at other people, you’re not committed to making what you’ve got into something amazing.

What are the big take-aways about calling? It’s okay if you don’t know what your calling is. Just say that to yourself and let it sit for a second. Just notice what you’re curious about and who you enjoy being around. Follow what spurs you into action. It might be comforting to know that even if you did find your calling, that feeling would probably change eventually.
 


 
References

Dobrow, S. R. (2013). Dynamics of calling: A longitudinal study of musicians. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 34(4), 431-452. Abstract

Dobrow, S. R. & Tosti-Kharas, J. (2011). Calling: The development of a scale measure. Personnel Psychology, 64(4): 1001-1049.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking Press.

Lehman, E. (2013). In Memoriam: Richard Hackman, 1940 – 2013. Discusses his work on orchestra job satisfaction.


Images mostly via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Potato Sculpture courtesy of Peter Chakali
Are you a musician? courtesy of Lotus Carroll
Signs of music everywhere courtesy of wolfgraebel
The Story of the Vivian Girls courtesy of confetta
Zookeeper courtesy of davitydave
Cat on phone courtesy of Tiz

10 Comments »

  • Jeanine Joy says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for the article.

    This subject is one I’ve been studying for many years.

    As I read about the longitudinal study I don’t think they asked the right questions to go deep enough to understand a calling. In my opinion, a calling is something bigger than ourselves. For example, the garbage man you mentioned saw his calling as making the world a more beautiful place.

    Callings are like that. Things like helping others, healing, the original definition of serving god, bringing the world closer to peace, and other goals are how I would define a calling.

    In the cited logitudinal study, the questions did not dig deep enough.

    “The participants in her study were teenagers when the study began, taking part in elite music summer camps. Over a period of seven years, Dobrow checked in to see how they felt as time passed and to find out what they went on to do in adulthood. To gauge their experience of calling, they indicated how strongly they felt in response to statements such as, ”Playing music is a deeply moving and gratifying experience for me,” “I would continue being a musician even in the face of severe obstacles,” and “I would sacrifice everything to be a musician.”

    If the research had asked enough questions to determine why they initially felt music was deeply moving and gratifying, that they would be a musician even in the face of severe obstacles, or that they would sacrifice everything to be a musician.

    We have to get to the level of understanding why they felt those things.

    Did they feel music was deeply moving and gratifying because it helped them get through tumultuous teen years and now they have another method that works for them? Did they feel it was deeply moving and gratifying because they had an experiences or experiences where a desire to uplift others was fulfilled through their music? If their calling is to uplift others, a subsequent failure of music to do that in a situation that was highly personal and important to them could lead to discarding the method (music) but not the calling (a desire to uplift).

    Likewise, the reason they were initially willing to continue being a musician despite obstacles could have been present when they believed it was the best way they could fulfill a myriad of purposes (or could not have been based on a calling at all–it could have been based on an ego-driven desire such as fame). This question does not give us sufficient information to judge. A youngster could, as they matured and obtained higher levels of education realized their calling could be achieved on other paths.

    The willingness to sacrifice also does not yield us the underlying reason the willingness was present.

    I do define a calling differently than you do in the article but believe my points are relevant nonetheless.

    I agree that it is not necessary to go off searching for a calling. It really is not that difficult to identify ones calling with the right knowledge and tools.

    I do believe it is important. When our work and our calling are aligned, we are inspired from within. We have intrinsic motivation that fires us up and keeps us going when the going is tough. We are more ethical. I have examples of this in my upcoming book demonstrating how someone with a career makes less ethical decisions than someone who has a calling.

    How our calling plays out can vary over time. For decades my calling (helping others/uplifting others) was fulfilled through work in the corporate arena. But as soon as I had developed knowledge and skills that made me qualified to help more people in ways that created more long-term benefit for them I could have no more remained in the old role than I could voluntarily stop breathing.

  • Sherri says:

    Genevieve, great look at “callings” from many perspectives and wisdom traditions. What is your fave approach to helping stuck clients go beyond the sense that they have “missed” their calling?

  • Eva says:

    Great article!!! ,thanks so much , Genevieve. I think this is exactly what I needed to read in this moment in time .I’ve been searching “for my calling” for a long time… and everything you have written on your article makes sense to me, very wise!!! I feel somehow relieved and it releases the pressure, let the natural creativity and imagination flow… as it should be and everything will come naturally together :)

  • tiggy says:

    Genevieve – good article. My hunch is that the obsession with life purpose (calling) is harmful. If its like meaning (and purpose is a big part of meaning), then the more you look for meaning the unhappier you are and this is accentuated if you value meaning more.

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Hi Jeanine,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Dobrow’s calling scale actually does include statements about meaning, I just chose a few representative statements to illustrate the idea. Her scale was created based on other research on callings, but also on extensive interviews with a sample of her longitudinal participants. In those interviews, she actually did ask what it means to them to be involved with music, what do they get out of being involved in music. Some of the students did say things like “being part of something bigger” or “bringing people joy.” One participant even said something like, “vibrating columns of air doesn’t seem like it should be some deep spiritual experience, but on some level it is.” Some talked of “the high” they get, and one quoted Mahler in saying, “when I’m doing these things, I feel that all my questions are answered, or rather, that they aren’t questions at all.” In short, there seemed to be lots of different reasons that these kids felt so compelled to pursue music. The scale itself is to ascertain level of calling, not to predict why people experience it. The interviews I’m referring to do more to give this knowledge, but they are anecdotal. In order to measure possible antecedents, Dobrow was looking at other measures such as behavioral involvement and social comfort. Meaning might be a predictor of something else called calling, but then you couldn’t include meaning in the definition of calling. Anyway, it sounds more like your definition of calling is different, as you say, which would probably require a different scale. :)

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Hi Sherri,

    Thank you for the question. I think it depends on where the person is in their life, and I’m not sure I’ve got the golden answer particularly around feeling like you’ve “missed” your calling, but what usually strikes me about people who feel this way is the way they are looking at their life, in general. (Again, it totally depends on your clients, and I think you have to listen closely to hear the motivation behind what they’re saying — where it’s coming from and how it relates to other patterns in their thinking.) The first route I’d try is to re-consider the way they are putting together the story of their life. (Margarita Tarragona’s narrative therapy is a good resource.) This might involve a little mindset-shifting/ attribution theory work. But the idea is to rebuild a cohesive picture of their life, even if that involves pivoting to something new now. They made the choices they made for some reason. Sometimes it takes reminding them of those reasons. If they really made choices for reasons that were extrinsic, then looking to the future is probably best. But with people who are stressing about not having a calling, I totally drop that language and start looking at things on a smaller scale — what inspires, ignites passion, gets them energized. One of my biggest recommendations for people looking for a calling or can’t think of anything they’re passionate about (after getting a sense of their strengths) is getting them to do things that get their heart rate up, or get them emotionally fired-up, like doing serious cardio (tabatas are amazing), watching TED talks, or listening to moving music loudly. (It’s like restarting their vagal tone or something. Or maybe it’s the misattribution of arousal — I don’t know. Seems to work, though.) This opens them up, lifts them out of their rut to some extent, where they can start to think more future-oriented, optimistic thoughts. I hope this helps, but get in touch if you want to talk it through more: hello (at) workinthewild (dot) com.

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Hi Sherri,

    Thank you for the question. I think it depends on where the person is in their life, and I’m not sure I’ve got the golden answer particularly around feeling like you’ve “missed” your calling, but what usually strikes me about people who feel this way is the way they are looking at their life, in general. (Again, it totally depends on your clients, and I think you have to listen closely to hear the motivation behind what they’re saying — where it’s coming from and how it relates to other patterns in their thinking.) The first route I’d try is to re-consider the way they are putting together the story of their life. (Margarita Tarragona’s narrative therapy is a good resource.) This might involve a little mindset-shifting/ attribution theory work. But the idea is to rebuild a cohesive picture of their life, even if that involves pivoting to something new now. They made the choices they made for some reason. Sometimes it takes reminding them of those reasons. If they really made choices for reasons that were extrinsic, then looking to the future is probably best. But with people who are stressing about not having a calling, I totally drop that language and start looking at things on a smaller scale — what inspires, ignites passion, gets them energized? Are they ignoring their passion because of other seemingly-pressing goals? One of my biggest recommendations for people looking for a calling or can’t think of anything they’re passionate about (after getting a sense of their strengths) is getting them to do things that get their heart rate up, or get them emotionally fired-up, like doing serious cardio (tabatas are amazing), watching TED talks, or listening to moving music loudly. (It’s like restarting their vagal tone or something. Or maybe it’s the misattribution of arousal — I don’t know. Seems to work, though.) This opens them up, lifts them out of their rut to some extent, where they can start to think more future-oriented, optimistic thoughts. I hope this helps, but get in touch if you want to talk it through more: hello (at) workinthewild (dot) com.

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Awesome! So glad it helped, and thank you very much for letting me know, Eva. :)

  • Genevieve Douglass says:

    Hi tiggy, I think your hunch is correct and the research is backing you up.

  • Lars Nyheim says:

    Thank you for this interesting article about the search for a calling. It gave me some new thoughts to think about, and maybe some more headroom to relax and just let things happen.

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.