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Stop Searching for Your Calling

written by Genevieve Douglass November 20, 2013
Cat calling

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.


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.