When I first met Marisa, she had a highly successful career by any objective measure. She worked as a product manager at a Fortune 500 company, was pulling down a six-figure salary, and was next in line for a promotion. She had a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood, and already was sitting on a substantial nest egg, despite being only in her late 30s. She was also widely respected, both within and outside of her company. It sounded like the outcome of an ideal career plan.
There was just one problem: Marisa was miserable. She could hardly get out of bed and go into work anymore. She hated her job.
She loved the trappings of the job, sure—the prestige, the pay, the benefits package. But she hated that these things served as golden handcuffs, chaining her to work that she had never really enjoyed. Marisa felt trapped.
I asked her: “If money was no object and you could do whatever you want, what would that be?”
She paused, and silently reflected, before almost longingly replying: “I want to find my calling.”
What is a calling?
Some people think about their work as “just a job,” little more than a means to a paycheck, or a way to pass the time. Others view their work as pathway to power, prestige, and wealth—a way to satisfy strong needs for achievement. People who view their work as a calling are different. They appreciate being able to earn a living, and they want to be successful, sure. For those with a calling, though, work is more about the chance to use their gifts to make a meaningful difference in the world. People with a calling feel a kind of transcendent summons, a sense of being compelled or drawn not just to a certain type of work, but to approach their work in a purpose-driven way.
Researchers in psychology and other social sciences have begun to seriously study what it means to have a calling, and what difference it makes. In fact, research on calling is very hot right now, with more studies published on the topic in the last five years than in all of history before that. What have we learned? First of all, we’ve learned that a sense of calling is surprisingly prevalent—in most samples, anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of participants across a wide range of occupations indicate that they think of their work as a calling. Second, we’ve learned that people with a calling tend to be better off than those who think of their work in other ways. For example, people with callings are more confident in making career decisions, more committed to their jobs and organizations, more intrinsically motivated and engaged, and more satisfied with their jobs. They are also happier, more satisfied with life, cope more effectively with challenges, are less likely to suffer from stress and depression, and express a stronger sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. The news is not all good; some people with callings are vulnerable to workaholism, or exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Still, the weight of the evidence suggests that on balance, viewing work as a calling is usually associated with nontrivial benefits, both in terms of career development progress but also general well-being.
How can you discern your calling?
For many people (like Marisa) who are unhappy with their work, or who lack a clear sense of direction, the question “How do I discern my calling?” is front-and-center. What steps can you take to figure out what your calling is? The approach that some people take is to wish for a sign, something that reveals the path forward unmistakably. The “hope and wait approach” is rarely successful, though, if the waiting is a passive type of waiting. A much better strategy is to “hope and be active,” using available resources to gain a clearer sense of one’s gifts, explore opportunities and needs in the world of work, and identify opportunities that offer an optimal fit. This process is best summarized in four steps:
1. Understand how you’re unique. What are your “gifts,” broadly defined? Your particular set of gifts make you different from other people—well-suited for some types of work, and not as well-suited for others. By gifts, I mean interests, values, personality traits, abilities. You can identify your gifts through introspection, by paying attention to your past experiences, or seeking feedback from people who know you well.
However, an especially efficient method of identifying your gifts is to take some career assessments. The jobZology VIP (values, interests, and personality) assessments are just one example of reliable and valid measurement tools that can help you understand what you enjoy, what is most important to you in work environment, and how you tend to behave in ways that make you different from other people.
2. Understand opportunities in the world of work. Given how you are unique, gifted differently than other people, which career paths are most likely to provide you with satisfaction and meaning? When embarking on a career that fits you well, you will feel like a fish swimming with the current instead of against it. The job will seem natural, invigorating, exciting, meaningful.
What opportunities will allow you to use your gifts to make a meaningful difference? One place to explore different career paths is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network, or O*NET. This site provides detailed information for more than 1000 job titles, including the interests and values that characterize people who are happily employed within each job. If your gifts match those of people in a particular job who love what they do, that job might be a good option for you to consider. The jobZology VIP assessment portal uses an algorithm to match you to possible good-fitting jobs based on your scores, but anyone can search occupations in the O*NET on their own at no charge. Once you find a career path that looks promising, conducting an informational interview with someone in that line of work is an excellent way to get more detailed information about what life is like in that job.
3. Identify an optimal fit. Once you have a clearer sense of your gifts, and have examined possible good-fitting career paths, the next step is to choose an option to pursue. This is not always easy; sometimes, a few different career paths seem like equally promising fits. When that is the case, it may feel like a problem, but it’s a very good problem to have, because it means you have multiple options that could work well. Which one is the “right” one? Quite possibly all of them are; you have the freedom to choose with the comfort of knowing there is no obvious wrong choice.
4. Seek support. Career decisions are best made in community, not in isolation. Research evidence supports this. Career counseling interventions that focus on enlisting encouragement and support from important others in the lives of job-seekers are substantially more effective than those that don’t do this. One option to consider is to invite three to five people in your life—people who you trust, who have your best interests in mind, and who know you well—to serve on a “personal board of directors.” Meet with each of them, and seek support and honest input from them regarding your strengths and weaknesses, along with suggestions for the kinds of opportunities in which they think you’d thrive. Keeping in close contact with them during your career decision-making process will bolster your confidence and help ensure that you are considering your options from all angles, without blinders.
From having a calling to living a calling
Recent research on the role of calling in career development suggests that simply having a sense of calling isn’t enough—a person has to be living out the calling in order to experience its benefits. If you feel you have a calling to the field of nursing, for example, what good would that be if you felt you couldn’t find employment as a nurse? Indeed, evidence suggests that people who feel that barriers prevent them from living their calling may be worse off than those who don’t sense a calling at all. The key point, obviously, is that it is critically important for those who sense a calling to take active steps toward living it out.
Once you identify a career path to which you may be called, what options are available to help you live it out? For a growing number of adults today, pursuing new education and training opportunities is a requirement for executing their career plan. At one time, enrolling in a degree program required relocating near a brick-and-mortar institution of higher learning, but the tremendous growth of online education makes earning a degree more convenient than ever—especially for those who are working full time or who are tied to their current location due to family constraints. Have you explored your education options? Doing so may open up a world of possibilities you didn’t know existed, but that might help you take meaningful steps toward living your calling.
Do you think of your work as a calling?
Researchers have many tools available to measure a sense of calling. One very short scale that is commonly used is the Brief Calling Scale, which consists of just two questions. How would you respond to them, using the following scale?
1 = not at all true of me
2 = mildly true of me
3 = moderately true of me
4 = mostly true of me
5 = totally true of me
___1. I have a calling to a particular kind of work.
___2. I have a good understanding of my calling as it applies to my career.
Computing scale scores is easy—just add your ratings for the two items. The average score for college students is 6.2; for employed adults representing a wide range of occupations, the average score is 6.1. Take a moment and compare your scores to the averages. Statistically speaking, whether you are a student or a working adult, if you happen to score 9 or above, you are in the upper 16 percent of the population when it comes to experiencing a calling.
How do you stack up?