The Psychology Of Professional Purpose: Follow Your Calling

Three ways to make your job a calling—without even changing occupations.

Posted Jan 16, 2017

This article was originally published in Forbes. Sign up for my newsletter to get my articles straight to your inbox.

“There’s nothing I’d like more than a job that was so meaningful to me that I brought it home,” one 9-5 employee told historian Studs Terkel in Working.

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Source: Pexels

She mirrors most of us: though the majority of us say we haven’t found our calling, we want one. Instead, we click at our keyboards like a ticking clock.

As part of her groundbreaking research on grit, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth asked 16,000 American adults about their vocations. She found, surprisingly, that calling has little to do with occupation. Garbage collectors, wine critics, secretaries and others are all equally likely to say their job is a calling. It’s not that some occupations are just jobs while others are callings, says Duckworth. Rather, “how you see your work is more important than the job title.”

We can all make our jobs into callings—sometimes without even changing occupations.

How?

Julia Child’s first bite of French cuisine changed her life forever. But not in the way you think. We fantasize that callings fall from the sky. In truth, we fall into our callings over time. Duckworth notes that Child didn’t even consider a cooking career initially; she just loved French food. Child’s persistent interest clued her toward her calling.

Callings stem—slowly—from intrinsic motivationIntrinsic goals are inherently satisfying to pursue because they satisfy our desire for autonomy, relatedness, competence or growth. People who view their jobs as callings work for the sake of it, not for external gains like money, possessions or social status. In turn, intrinsic motivation improves vocational achievement, grit, motivation and psychological health.

Thus, to develop a calling, people need to “play an active role in developing and deepening their interests,” writes Duckworth. Finding your calling is like following a trail of breadcrumbs without knowing exactly where they’ll take you.

But millennials may get hung up here, because going in one direction necessarily precludes others. My boyfriend describes careers as a network of Utah canyons. As you start down one, backtracking and choosing another becomes a mounting effort. You can’t just skip over to the next option; you’re committed.

Fortunately, our values—the foundations of our interests—typically don’t change over time. A 2016 Deloitte survey found that millennials’ values tend not to change as they advance professionally. In fact, our existing values often become stronger as we move into management positions.

Even so, we have many values. How do we pick which one to follow? Priorities.

One way to prioritize is by zooming out and considering the potential outcomes of our interests. We can’t always see where the breadcrumbs lead, but we can study where other people’s interests have taken them. We can predict where specific interests might wind up. Zooming out protects us from prioritizing things that aren’t ultimately important to us. Then it frees up time and energy to pursue what is.

We can also compare what we care about side-by-side. As we weed out things that interest us and matter to us less than others, our priorities become simpler and our path becomes more defined.

Once we choose, we need to follow our calling canyon until the end, or until it becomes an obvious impasse. Yale management professor Amy Resneski has observed that many of us give each job only a couple years before deciding it’s not a calling. The average 29 year old has already changed jobs more than seven times—and a third of them have lasted less than six months. But Duckworth’s research on grit and psychologist Anders Ericsson’s research on expertise suggests that it often takes a decade or more to reap the rewards of commitment.

Finally, jobs become callings when they transcend “me.” We evolved to find meaning in serving the pack: People who cooperate are more likely to survive than loners because society keeps us fed and shelters us from the enemies and elements.

Joe Leader interned with New York City Transit after college to pay back student loans. After decades, Leader eventually became the Senior Vice President, a job he considered his calling. When he realized his part in facilitating 1.7 billion trips per year and building stations that would last 30 years, “That’s when I knew I had a vocation.”

A calling is feeling that the work “has to be done.” It connects us to something greater than ourselves. Duckworth explains, “The long days and evenings of toil … the sacrifice, all this is worth it because [our] efforts pay dividends to other people.”

We can continually ask how what we do connects to other people and the bigger picture. How can it be an expression of our deepest values? This dynamic perspective produces calling. Writes Duckworth, “A brick layer who one day says, ‘I am laying bricks’ might at some point become the brick layer who recognizes, ‘I am building the house of God.’”

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About the Author

Caroline Beaton is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Her writing on psychology, health and culture has appeared in the Atlantic, Vice, Forbes and elsewhere. 

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