Finding meaning and a sense of purpose in our work is important. It is important for our effectiveness, for the satisfaction and fulfillment we get from our work, and for our overall life satisfaction.
One way to approach this is to think about whether our work can actually be our calling.
Sociologists sometimes use a classification system developed in 1985 by Robert Bellah and colleagues to categorize attitudes towards work into three categories:
- A job, meaning we primarily exchange time and energy for money.
- A career, in other words a vocation to which we are committed and in which we expect to advance.
- A calling, meaning that this is something we are meant to do.
The definition of calling has changed over the years. A thousand years ago it usually meant being called to an explicitly religious occupation, such as to be a monk or a priest. Today it can be used in both religious and secular contexts, and usually refers to the sense that “this is work that I am meant to do.”
Several people have tried to flesh out a more specific definition of calling; the approach I find most helpful is the one developed by Brian Dyk and Ryan Duffy. They identify three aspects of a calling (paraphrased):
- It is a summons from beyond us — most people would say from God;
- It provides deep meaning for the individual called; and
- Its intent involves serving others.
James Hillman, the long time director of studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich, added what I believe to be an important dimension – the idea that when we are born we have within in us something that we are meant to become. He put it like this:
Each bears a uniqueness that asks to be lived and that is already present before it can be lived.
There are certainly plenty of Biblical passages that refer to God forming us before we are born. And the sense of calling does indeed seem to come from deep within us.
Benefits of Seeing Our Work as a Calling
Whether we think of it as coming from outside, from deep within, or some combination, there are clear benefits to thinking of our work as a calling. Research has shown that people who see their work as a calling are likely to:
- Be more effective;
- Have higher overall satisfaction with life and their work;
- Have better relationships, at work and otherwise;
- Work with less stress; and
- Have a stronger, healthier self identity.
Can There be a Downside to Our Work as a Calling?
There can be a downside, however. Many of us have been in situations where we have been obsessed by our work, to the point that we have trouble leaving it behind, enjoying leisure, and maintaining healthy relationships. These are clear signs that we are not really being called; a true calling should be life giving, energizing, and healthy for relationships.
To be called does not mean to be enslaved!
In a study by Theresa Cardoda and Briana Caza, the authors compared what they thought of as healthy and unhealthy callings (generally defined by the effect on relationships) and made a strong case that a key issue is what they called work – identity flexibility. As they put it:
Without work-identity flexibility, individuals with callings have more difficulty adapting to the natural changes and stressors in their profession, lives, and work environment.
I interpret their conclusions to mean that while there are very important benefits to experiencing a sense of call in our work, we need to be careful to not identify too closely with a particular job, position, or accomplishment. We can lose any of these, and must be able to let go without losing our identity or sense of calling.
And now we come to the big question:
How Can We Find Our Calling in Our Work?
First, we have to accept the fact that this usually takes a lot of patience. Maybe some people experience a sudden revelation, a bolt out of the blue, so to speak, that sets them on their course. But for most of us it takes time, trial and error, and reflection. There seems to be a need for a prolonged period of negotiation between our deepest drives and our environment.
A calling is more likely to develop as we gain experience. As we perform different jobs and tasks, we can begin to get a sense of our deep inner connections with particular types of work. Sometimes it can be just a part of a job or a part of a task that seems to attract us; these can be valuable clues.
Often it seems to be easier to see the meaning in retrospect. As Soren Kierkegaard said,
It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.
Joy can be an important signpost. By joy, I don’t mean the happiness we feel when we are rewarded for our work or are promoted to a new position. By joy, I mean that deep sense that we are moving in the right direction – that we are doing something that we are meant to do. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of consolation and desolation – consolation being the sense that we are moving towards God, desolation the sense that we are moving away from God. Even just a small hint of joy can be an important signpost, if we pay attention.
Prayer and reflection are critically important, and are especially helpful when paired with experience. Turning towards God in silence and with openness can help us listen to what our experience and our inner promptings are telling us. They can help us to notice the signposts and to discern what they might mean.
We need to think seriously about how our work serves others – the third point in Dik and Duffy’s definition.
Quite often people (especially devout Christians) have trouble understanding how their work serves others. There is a tendency to limit valid service to feeding the hungry, healing the sick, taking care of children and the elderly, and perhaps providing for basic needs. We need to think more broadly than this. People are complicated, and there are very many ways that they are served through our work.
Our work can:
- Provide products and services that contribute to the material well being of others;
- Provide opportunity for others to develop and use their talents; and
- Develop collaborative relationships and community.
We need to think more broadly about how our work serves others. Our work is important – probably more important than we realize.
We usually think in terms of being called to a specific job or occupation. But Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton observed that individuals often have considerable flexibility to modify their jobs in order to bring them into closer alignment with their values and to give them more meaning. They call this job crafting, and suggest that this can involve task crafting (or modifying the work itself), relations crafting, or cognitive crafting (reframing or redefining how they think of the task).
In another paper, Adam Grant, Justin Berg, and Victoria Johnson looked at situations where people do not seem to be able to connect their work with their sense of calling. In addition to job crafting, they introduce the idea of leisure crafting – people sometimes develop leisure activities that fulfill the sense of calling they cannot find in their work.
A Life Calling?
This suggests that perhaps we should think in terms of a life calling, and how our work fits into or supports our life calling.
Here are some questions that might help us think about these issues.
- What provides meaning and purpose in your life?
- How does your work connect with or support this life meaning?
- What do your work relationships seem to be telling you?
- What in your work gives you life and energy?
And perhaps most important, what brings you a sense of joy in your work, even if only as a small hint?
I have come so that they may have life, and have it in full.
John 10:10 (NRSV)
 Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M. Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Harper Collins, 1986).
 Bryan J. Dik and Ryan D. Duffy, “Calling and Vocation at Work: Definitions and Prospects for Research and Practice”, in The Counseling Psychologist 37 (2009) pp. 424-450.
 James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York: Random House, 1996) Kindle Version location 143.
 Theresa Cardador and Brianna Caza “Relational and Identity Perspectives on Healthy versus Unhealthy Pursuit of Callings”, in Journal of Career Assessment, (2012) pp. 338 – 353.
 Amy Wrzesniewski and Clark McCauley “Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work” in Journal of Research in Personality (1997) pp. 21-33.
 Justin Berg, Adam Grant, and Victoria Johnson “When callings are Calling: Crafting Work and Leisure in Pursuit of Unanswered Occupational Callings” in Organization Science (September -October 2010) pp. 973 – 994.