Work can be viewed as a job (a source of money and security), a career (a source of achievement and advancement), or a calling (a source of meaning and purpose).
Since the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the notion of a “calling” has been associated with religion. But researchers have found strong parallels between secular and sacred callings.
In the secular sense, a calling has been described as “an approach to work that reflects the belief that one’s career is a central part of a broader sense of purpose and meaning in life and is used to help others or advance the greater good in some fashion.” Others say that it also involves a sense of “duty, sacrifice, and vigilance.”
How can you tell if you have a calling?
Researchers say that regardless of whether the source is religious or secular, callings have the following three characteristics:
- An external summons. A sense of having been summoned by an external “caller.” For some, that’s God or “a higher power.” For others, it’s a response to a social need, the needs of one’s country, a family legacy (a profession or business), or some other force that’s external to the individual.
- Provides a source of meaning and purpose. The work is aligned with the individual’s sense of purpose in life.
- Serves the greater good. There’s a sense that the work helps others directly or indirectly.
A brief history of the concept of callings
Aspects of callings are found in other religions, but, because of its profound influence on the Protestant work ethic, in the Western world and especially in the US, many of our ideas about callings are rooted in the teachings of Christianity. Until the Protestant Reformation, having a calling referred to a call to ministry or the call of the gospel. The Reformation redefined all work as a calling. Callings were no longer limited to a specific set of occupations; instead, callings became an attitude toward work. “The Protestants endowed work with the quest for meaning, identity, and signs of salvation. Work became a kind of prayer. More than a means for living, it became a purpose for living.”
Reformer Martin Luther brought callings to the masses, teaching that all Christians – clergy and laity – have callings. They are called to grace and in that grace is a divine direction to serve their neighbor. Later, John Calvin, father of the Protestant work ethic, added a sense of individual duty and responsibility. Thus, rejecting a calling ”would be a moral failure, a negligent abandonment of those who have need for one’s gifts, talents, and efforts.”
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the work ethic became secularized — some credit Benjamin Franklin’s writings for aiding this process — and secular notions of callings began to emerge. The secularization of callings expanded dramatically in the mid to late 20th century with increased academic research on the topic and related subjects such as meaningful work.
At the same time there was an increased interest in the meaning of life and work as evidenced by the popularity of Victor Frankl’s writings and best-selling publications such as “Habits of the Heart.” Public interest and academic focus led to the development of tools and strategies to help managers and workers elevate the meaning of work, for example, through the concept of “job crafting.”
Implications of having a calling
For people with a calling, often work is not separate from the rest of their lives. Someone with a calling isn’t working just for money or career advancement, but the fulfillment that their work brings to them. Many people with callings report that they would continue to do the work even if they were not getting paid. But that doesn’t mean that everything about the work is pleasurable. A calling “is the attitude with which people approach their work rather than more objective job characteristics…” A study of callings among zookeepers found that some of the less glamorous aspects of the role (cleaning up after animals) were simply seen as the unavoidable aspects of an overall ennobling role of providing stewardship to one’s fellow creatures.
Benefits of having a calling
Researchers report that people with a calling experience greater meaning in life, higher overall life satisfaction, and lower incidence of depression than people without a calling. Work that is a calling has been linked to a stronger commitment to one’s profession, increased clarity about one’s self-concept, longer job tenures, greater enthusiasm, less job-related stress, and higher job performance and job satisfaction. And people with a calling are more likely to use constructive approaches to cope with challenges and are less likely to use avoidance as a coping mechanism.
The meaningfulness aspect of a calling, which is a precursor to happiness, has been characterized as having “existential importance.” People with a calling are involved in “work” that “engages them at a deep level and provides them with a highly valued sense of contribution and worth in their work lives.”
The dark side of callings
Studies have found that people with a greater sense of calling are more willing to make sacrifices (time, income, comfort, or even wellbeing) for their role, especially for those who felt that destiny had led them to their calling. The central thesis of the zookeeper study mentioned earlier is that callings can be “a painfully double-edged sword, both a source of transcendent meaning, identity, and significance as well as unbending [moral] duty, sacrifice, and vigilance.” And that sense of moral duty transcends personal choice about the role. Thus a failure to live out one’s calling is a moral failure.
But the study’s authors left unanswered whether this sense of moral duty is (a) an expression of the “external summons” component of callings, (b) a possible fourth component (in addition to the three outlined earlier), or (c) a peculiarity of callings experienced within certain professions.
Other dark sides of callings have been pointed out, including increased potential for workaholism, opportunities for organizational exploitation, and possible tensions between management and workers when workers have a strong sense of calling that they believe management doesn’t share.
Implications beyond work
Callings aren’t limited to certain occupations or even to the world of paid work. While some who study callings refer to non-work callings as mere “passions,” there is ample research that points to callings as an orientation to “the work” that can take place in various life roles, not just within paid occupations. For example, many researchers point to parenting and childrearing as roles where people can experience having a calling.
Are callings delivered, discovered, or developed?
The answer to this question is “yes.” Some people report that their calling was delivered to them by an external source – an external summons. For others, it was discovered after a process of discernment. They reported a sense of destiny about finding the work that they were meant to do. And, for still others, their sense of calling was something that developed over time. The work became a perfect fit – matching their interests, values, and skills.
The source of the calling doesn’t seem to affect job and life satisfaction so long as the individual feels that they’re living out their calling.
Callings are not binary. Instead, callings are on a continuum from high to low. In other words, people can have a stronger or weaker sense of calling rather than just “having” or “not having” a calling.
A sense of calling can increase over time. The deeper one’s engagement in the role associated with the calling, the stronger the sense of the calling. And there’s evidence that social support is another factor that can deepen one’s sense of calling, particularly socializing with people in the same role, or presumably colleagues in the same profession.
Leaving work that’s been your calling
This was my real interest in exploring the topic of callings: how to successfully leave behind a work role that involves a sense of calling. A recent paper identified three preretirement strategies for the process of “de-calling:”
- Developing a calling on standby, which I refer to as supplanting. This means supplanting at least the meaningfulness and societal contribution components of a calling by engaging in meaningful activities in the service of others. When it comes to developing a calling on standby, this study reminds us that a calling is an orientation toward work, not a specific type of work. In other words, it’s the fruits of the work, not the specific role that is existentially meaningful. Perhaps that’s a commitment to a particular field or serving a particular population or aspect of society. Examples of callings on standby might include post-career consulting work, serving as an interim executive, or serving as an executive coach in your field or profession. Of course, there’s also volunteering with organizations that serve that population or aspect of society that’s been the subject of your calling.
- Learning not to listen to the calling through a gradual withdrawal from working life. An example of this approach is phased-retirement, which might involve a pre-retirement reduction in hours as you wind down your role. Or it might involve a post-retirement engagement with your current employer as, say, a special advisor, leader of a special project, or some other engagement.
- Listening to callings from other spheres, which I refer to as rebalancing – rebalancing your life portfolio, investing your energies in other domains of your life. An example here might be making a declaration that you’ve “done your duty.” As pointed out earlier, the boundaries between work and private life can become blurred and arbitrary. And work that’s a calling has a way of crowding out other aspects of our lives, depriving them of our attention and energies. With your duty done, it might be time to pay closer attention to those areas of life that received short shrift over the years. You might even feel ready to be ”de-called,” eager to or even deserving of the ability to devote your energies elsewhere.
Of course, these strategies are not mutually exclusive. You might combine them.
This same study identified three post-retirement strategies for dealing with being de-called:
- Conserving the calling — continuing to engage with your calling elsewhere through bridge employment, an encore career, or volunteer activities. Pursuing and enjoying the three aspects of your calling, but with a change of venue.
- Learning to become self-oriented — reclaiming yourself from the calling, refocusing on your own needs, reclaiming your rights over your schedule and commitments, declaring the right to be retired, and making the adjustments between the old and new routines, or refocusing your energies elsewhere by rebalancing your life portfolio.
- Redefining the calling — using the freedom of post-career life to be open to a new calling. Discovering or developing a new calling through activities, such as volunteer work, or other within other areas of your life, such as family.
If you feel a sense of calling about your work role, you may experience some angst as you move toward post-career life. Callings touch on core existential questions, such as why are we here and what are we supposed to do. And all transitions provoke these emotions.
But callings aren’t something that you have to leave at retirement’s door. A recent study that looked at calling among retirees found that a majority (78.8%) perceive that they were pursuing a calling in retirement. And most of those (62.4%) said their calling involved serving others and the greater good (helping others, family/caretaking, teaching, and civic engagement). Of course, serving others or the greater good is one of the critical characteristics of callings and a source of life satisfaction in retirement.
As we’ve seen, your calling is an orientation to the role, and not the role itself. As we’ve also seen, callings aren’t necessarily just delivered, they can also be discovered and developed. Post-career life can provide the freedom to explore unanswered callings or create a calling you haven’t yet imagined.
You have power. You have options. And you have choice over those options. You have the power to compose your post-career life – to extend your current calling, declare it complete, or develop a new calling if that suits you.
© Don Tebbe, 2019.
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