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It’s Never Too Late to Find Your Calling

New research shows how you can live your dream, regardless of age.

Key points

  • A calling is a vocational pursuit that allows people to fulfill their inner sense of identity and purpose.
  • New research examines the career paths of would-be musicians and how they found a way back to their calling.
  • These findings show there is always time to express your calling, even if you put it aside once.
Ollyy Shutterstock
Source: Ollyy Shutterstock

Being able to live out your dream through your work or career pathway is the ultimate goal of most people. Known as a “calling,” this drive leads people to seek the types of jobs that they feel are most closely aligned with their sense of self.

You may know someone who is able to live out their passion through their calling. Perhaps it’s an art teacher who enjoys teaching and uses every opportunity to participate in local art shows. A calling could also take the form of a personal quest in a hands-on occupation, such as working as an expert carpenter or builder. People who spend their days as stay-at-home parents could also qualify for a calling when they do so out of an inner desire rather than necessity.

Calling and Opportunity

This idea of following your calling is all very well and good, but how practical is it? You feel a burning desire to have that career in the arts or be at home for your kids, but what if the reality of needing to earn a living gets in the way? According to Kings College’s Jane Sturgis and Catherine Bailey (2024), the ability to realize your personal mission in life, with all of its benefits to mental health, may be just too far out of reach for the ordinary person. Economics plus changes in the job market mean that “we are likely witnessing a significant growth in the number of individuals whose callings remain unanswered.”

These limitations need not last a lifetime, however. People can rediscover their calling when changing circumstances allow them to reactivate those old desires. A calling, the U.K. authors assume, never actually died out but instead remained latent, waiting for life to offer new opportunities.

Latent Callings and Sense of Identity

A latent calling, according to Sturgis and Bailey, is one that remains hidden but never vanishes. Though not expressed openly, it can continue to inform a person’s sense of identity. A “mutable calling identity script” sits there, waiting to be brought back to life. However, there is a problem with this view.

Previous researchers in the field assumed that once you shut the door on a calling, the opportunity would vanish forever. You might continue to express, say, your musical or woodworking interests through leisure activities, but this could actually make things worse by serving as a constant reminder of what could have been.

Defending their position that latent callings don’t need to undercut people’s sense of well-being, the Kings College authors maintain that the identity script remains a basic part of people’s sense of self and, therefore, doesn’t get destroyed if people must sell out to find a more profitable line of work. They note that “past selves may not be forgotten but can be retained within the self-concept.”

Although circumstances can change at any point in life that make it possible to fulfill the calling, retirement seems to present a natural time for the latent callings to resurface. Identity growth, then, can occur at any age, even if it takes half a century for this to come to fruition.

The Life Pathway Back to a Calling

Using the field of music as their platform for study, Sturgis and Bailey conducted life-history interviews on 32 retired individuals, all of whom played musical instruments but spent their careers working in other jobs, ranging from probation officer and accountant to physician, lawyer, and TV producer. Ages 54 to 80, all had retired from the age of 50 to 67 years old.

Looking first at their “calling scripts,” participants enumerated why they were prevented from following their passion in youth. Sample quotes were as follows:

You understand where you are in the pecking order and I’m not good enough to be a professional, it never crossed my radar.

My father booked up a course at secretarial college and I had no alternative so I had to do it.

I was pushed into doing [maths] by my father, I hated it.

Summarizing the barriers to realizing their calling, the responses fell into the categories of poor pay and bad working conditions, perceived lack of talent, and lack of social validation in the domain of their calling.

Following their decision to give up on their calling, many people in the sample continued to “accommodate” life’s challenges while keeping their desire for music alive. Some went so far as to relocate to be closer to the chance to be in an orchestra (after work), take classes, and maintain social ties with other amateur musicians.

The life history narratives described a variety of pathways that enabled participants to revive their callings in retirement. Still, the most successful was this accommodative route, where they kept their involvement at a low but consistent level. For all, though, retirement gave these participants a chance to “move away from conformity to societal expectations towards identity growth via playful exploration, enjoyment, and discovery.”

Turning back to the question of whether taking up your calling as a hobby is in some ways detrimental, the authors maintain that their findings showed precisely the opposite. There was no “grief or failure,” and none expressed regret at having to wait so many years to live out their dreams.

Hope for Your Calling

Sturgis and Bailey end their extensive exploration of the life history scripts of their participants with a note of optimism:

“Our research gives hope to those who have had to renounce a once deeply held calling that the time will come when this may be resumed, and the beneficial experiences of living out their calling may once again be felt.”

With this inspirational message, you can now revisit the callings of your early years (whenever those were). What did you have to give up to get to where you are now? Are there ways you can reintegrate those into your life? Exploring these questions can help you recognize that letting your identity recede into the background is not the kiss of death for finding future fulfillment in expressing that identity.

To sum up, knowing that you can trace a route back to your earliest life interests can be heartening, especially if what you’re doing to make ends meet is not as enchanting as you’d like it to be. Don’t give up, and that path to fulfillment will be there for you whenever you wish to step back on it.


Sturges, J., & Bailey, C. (2023). Walking back to happiness: The resurgence of latent callings in later life. Human Relations, 76(8), 1256-1284.

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