A Superhero’s Calling

Pooling strengths for the common good

Posted Jan 31, 2013

In two earlier posts (here and here), I described how Spider-Man and Batman can offer some career development life lessons to non-superheroes like us. The superhero-as-career-development-role-model progression culminates in understanding how superheroes approach their jobs as a calling. Many superheroes have a strong desire to help others, even when doing so involves great personal risk. Typically, superheroes are acutely aware of the serious social needs in the world around them. In his long history, Superman stepped in to put a stop to gangsters, lynch mobs, corrupt politicians and abusive husbands in addition to battling his nemesis, Lex Luther. Wonder Woman was initially charged with the mission of fighting Nazi evils. The Green Arrow fought for the oppressed and underprivileged working class. For many superheroes, knowing that their superpowers are often all that stands between a horde of evil villains and widespread disaster befalling innumerable innocent lives has an unmistakably motivating effect. Essentially, there is a sense of calling—a set of pressing societal needs that compels the superhero, always well-suited for the task, to do all in her or his power to meet those needs.

In my research with Dr. Ryan Duffy, we define calling as having three dimensions: (1) a “transcendent summons” to (2) approach work in a way that connects it to a broader sense of life purpose and meaning, with (3) “other-oriented” values and goals as a key source of motivation. The “transcendent summons” notion conveys that a calling implies a “caller”--someone or something issuing the call. For many people this “caller” is God or a sense of destiny, but other callers might be a family legacy or particular sets of social needs, the latter of which summon Superman to fight evils wherever they arise. Superman is prototypic of calling-oriented superheroes. His idealism and belief in justice and humanitarian service clearly are evident in how he manages his job as crime-fighter. This reflects the second dimension of calling in that the activities Superman pursues in his work (e.g., battling villains and rescuing the helpless) are very much in line with his overarching life purpose (e.g., promoting justice). Finally, the third dimension of calling involves pursuing other-oriented goals for work; clearly, such goals are central motivators behind Superman’s attempts to protect those most in need.

Research on the effects of approaching work as a calling have exploded within the last 5 years. Evidence suggests that those who approach their work as a calling report higher levels both work-related and general well-being. This is the case despite the fact that people who approach work as a calling, by definition, are pursuing ends other than their own individual comfort or happiness. In fact, calling-oriented workers may willingly sacrifice some aspects of job satisfaction (like pay, security) in favor of others more central to their values (like making a difference for others). There endless examples of superheroes for which this clearly is the case, but also endless examples of mere mortals who also approach work as a calling. Doctors work to restore health to ill people. Teachers help students learn, develop character, and reach their potential. Bus drivers promote safety, reduce traffic and smog, help people save money, and transport riders to places they are needed. Electricians help ensure buildings function the way they are supposed to so that occupants can best accomplish the tasks for which their skills are needed. It may not be difficult to imagine that social workers or community service organization directors can have a positive impact on society through their work, but evidence suggests that any honest area of work can be approached in this way. Imagine a superhero with the powers of untold thousands of people who choose to work together in our capitalist economy with a sense of purpose toward promoting the well-being of society. Every possible area of expertise that exists is at the disposal of this superhero; every possible human skill can be utilized and combined with any other, in any combination, to accomplish virtually any humanly possible task. This vision at least partly represents the view of the good life and the good society that the calling and vocation perspective envisions. Overly optimistic? Of course. An ideal worth striving for anyway? Definitely.

In the end, as much as we might try to imagine that our human strengths make us superheroes of sorts, the reality is that the ability to alter your size, move with superhuman speed, or read others’ thoughts using extrasensory perception always will trump having good space relations or mechanical reasoning skills when the question pertains to which abilities are most desirable. Still, it’s probably useful to assume that until the day comes when one of your genes mutates to give you a useful superpower, there are ways to use what makes you unique to choose a best-fitting job, adjust to the inevitable changes that will unfold, and to think about your work—significant or insignificant as it may be—as a way to contribute to the common good. If all that separates you from a superhero is a superpower, well, there is no shame in that.