Monday, August 17, 2020

My Work Is a Calling. Let Me Tell You Why

If you are like most people, your work is somewhere between mind-numbing and mind-blowing, but you do not see it as a calling. You likely have met people who see their work as a calling, and you are vaguely envious of them (except perhaps of their pay). What makes people see their work as a calling? Or to be more precise, how do they describe their journey to a type of work that they experience as a calling?

Thanks to research by Matt Bloom, Amy E. Colbert, and Jordan D. Nielsen published in Administrative Science Quarterly, we know much more about how people describe their calling. The authors studied four caregiving professions that are richly populated by people who see their work as a calling: pastors, physicians, teachers, and international aid workers. They asked people in these occupations to talk about how they found both their calling in the occupation and their place doing it. Interestingly, they heard two different types of stories.

One was the journey toward the true self. This is the story we are most familiar with, and it involves spending time on introspection to discover oneself, discovering exemplars who show how greatness can be achieved, and listening to wise advice. This version is familiar in part because it is well captured in popular literature—any Star Wars fan can see these elements in the Luke Skywalker story. Its prominence does not mean it is fictional. It is exactly how many people find their calling, and an important part of these stories is the discovery of a better path. That could mean learning that the occupations others thought were best were not right—they didn’t resonate. It could involve getting wise guidance about one’s abilities that pointed in a particular direction.

The other type of story people told was about exploration leading to finding. This is a less familiar story that is overlooked, perhaps because it is less of a straight path. It involves departure from work that missed an emotional connection, fortuitous discovery of a better kind of work, and choosing the newly discovered work. This path toward a calling sounds less like finding a destiny, but it is equally strong and prominent among those who see their work as a calling. Departing something that is good but not great can lead to discoveries, and pursuing these discoveries may lead to work as a calling.

Maybe the second story is even something we prefer not to know about because of what it means for all those who experience their work as a regular activity and not as a calling. Is there something better out there? Would leaving the current work and exploring other activities be the way to discover a calling? It is for many others. But most people worry about risk and want to maintain their investments in their current activities, so exploration is rarely tried. Indeed, in troubled times such as these, who dares to explore unless they are forced to?

The two paths to a calling are interesting especially because the second one has so much promise for those who think they will never find a calling. It may even offer hope for those who are forced by the current crisis to stop their work and look for something new. I’ve seen social media posts reminding us that “What you do not change is what you choose.” For those seeking change in the form of a calling, perhaps finding it is as simple—and daring—as choosing again.

Bloom, M., A. E. Colbert, and J. D. Nielsen

2020 "Stories of Calling: How Called Professionals Construct Narrative Identities." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.