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Finding Your Calling Has Advantages and Disadvantages

In a new book, a group of scholars delves into the many ways people find their missions — at work and at home.

When I was a kid, I really wanted to win the recently established millionaire drawing in the New Jersey lottery. (I remember thinking that I would never need to work after pulling down the princely annual sum of $50,000 for 20 years.) Other than that, I’ve never had what I would call a calling. And it turns out I’m in good company: 60 to 70 percent of people don’t feel like they have a calling, either, according to studies cited by Martin Seligman in his introduction to Being Called: Scientific, Secular, and Sacred Perspectives (Praeger, 2015).

The genesis of Being Called was a meeting at Canterbury Cathedral in 2013, initiated by Seligman and his research team. Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, is a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, the study of strengths that enable people to thrive. The purpose of the gathering was to bring together an unusually diverse and distinguished group of secular and religious figures — social scientists, like Seligman; religious leaders, including Jonathan Sacks, then chief rabbi of the U.K.; and political and business leaders, such as Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — to explore the idea of “being called into the future.” The event inspired this academic collection of essays that attempt to define the nebulous subject of callings, and to establish some boundary lines (as loose and permeable as they may be) around it.

All three of the book’s editors — David Bryce Yaden, Theo D. McCall, and J. Harold Ellens — attended the Canterbury conclave. They also describe experiencing callings in their essays. Yaden, a psychologist who serves as the lead editor, awoke in his college dorm to a feeling of warmth in his chest that spread throughout his body and became an “experience of boundless unity” — an overwhelming sense of oneness with the world. As he thought about that experience in the weeks that followed, an inner voice directed him to become a “scriptor” — a Latin word meaning author or scribe, which he had to look up. McCall says that his vocation as an Anglican priest seemed obvious to people around him and inevitable as early as his mid-teens. Ellens reports a half-dozen numinous experiences that contributed to a “sense of destiny” and led him to the ministry.

But the essays in this accessible collection don’t just focus on the pulpit. Finding your calling — and following its dictates in order to live an authentic life — has become a popular work-life topic in recent years. Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at the Yale School of Management and a contributor to the book, was instrumental in expanding the concept of calling beyond its religious origins into the business world. She studied the differences between people who see their work as a job (with a primary focus on financial necessity), a career (with a focus on advancement), or a calling (with a focus on meaningful work as an end in and of itself). Callings, she writes, “appear to be ideal for both individuals and organizations. They auger satisfaction and engagement for the individual, and attachment, effort, and results for the organization.”

Finding your calling — and following its dictates — has advantages and disadvantages.

Of course, there can also be a dark side to callings, which psychology professor Ryan Duffy and his fellow researchers at the University of Florida have been studying. In their essay, Ryan and his team call out two problems: one associated with unlived callings and the other with lived callings that can become unhealthy.

What happens if you’re called to be a doctor, but you can’t get into medical school? Or you feel called to design products for Apple, but can’t get a job at the company? “[Our] handful of studies paints a clear picture: Feeling a calling may be good only insomuch as someone is living it out, and in some cases, ‘unanswered callings’ may result in regret, stress, and greater intentions to withdraw from one’s current employment,” Ryan explains.

What about that supercharged feeling that supposedly comes from following your calling? “Living out a calling is not always the pretty picture it is made out to be,” says Ryan. A fine line can separate a calling from an obsession. Ryan finds that the pressure to live up to a calling can lead to burnout, workaholism, and corporate exploitation.

The majority of us, who feel no discernable professional calling, don’t get much attention in Being Called. Does that mean that we are condemned to an endless, fruitless search for meaningful work or grinding lives of wage slavery? It’s possible.

But just as there are many paths to enlightenment, there may be many routes to professional fulfillment. It could be that simply performing a job well, or developing a craft, or pursuing a series of interesting careers over the course of a lifetime, can be just as satisfying and fulfilling as having a calling. All three have worked for me — although I must admit I would have rather won the lottery.

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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