Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work

Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work

by Bryan J. Dik, Ryan D. Duffy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781599473802
Publisher: Templeton Press
Publication date: 10/20/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Bryan Dik, PhD, is associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University and cofounder and chief science officer of Career Analytics Network/jobZology. His research is primarily in the area of career development, especially perceptions of work as a calling; meaning, purpose, religion and spirituality in career decision-making and planning; measurement of vocational interests; and career development interventions. He serves on the editorial boards of six research journals, including Journal of Counseling Psychology, Journal of Vocational Behavior, and Journal of Career Assessment. He is recipient of the 2010 Early Career Professional Award from the Society for Vocational Psychology, and is coeditor of two other books: Psychology of Religion and Workplace Spirituality and Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace.

Ryan D. Duffy, PhD, is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. Ryan’s research is primarily in the areas of vocational psychology and positive psychology. Topics he has studied include calling, job satisfaction, well-being, work volition, work values, and the interface of spirituality and work. He serves on the editorial boards of the Journal of Career Assessment and Journal of Counseling Psychology.

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Make Your Job a Calling

How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work

By Bryan Dik, Ryan Duffy

Templeton Press

Copyright © 2012 Bryan J. Dik and Ryan D. Duffy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59947-380-2


Recovering Calling

On a warm August afternoon on U.S. Highway 50, at Monarch Pass in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Bryce Eldridge lightly tapped the accelerator in his car and inched forward. His eyes bounced from the clock to the speedometer to the long line of traffic ahead of him, and he sighed heavily. His dad waited for him in Gunnison for a long-overdue backpacking trip in the West Elk wilderness, and he was itching to get there. He didn't expect this kind of delay, and he could only speculate as to its cause. An accident? A fallen boulder? The countless procession of curves in the highway, which hugged the mountainside, made it impossible to see far enough ahead to identify the source of the slowdown. Finally, after fifteen more minutes and a slow crawl around a couple more hairpin turns, he looked ahead and saw the problem: A repair crew had closed down half of the two-lane thoroughfare, leaving just one lane for the Friday afternoon, get-me-to-my-cabin traffic to bleed through.

Ahead of the rest of the crew, marking the entrance to the coned-off single lane, stood a silhouetted figure leaning against the unmistakable octagon of a stop sign, affixed to a pole in his right hand. Bryce squinted into the sun, and the figure revealed himself as an orange-vested flagger. Bryce pondered the man's plight. Wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, hard hat, and work boots astride the newly patched pavement, his job consisted of barking directives back and forth across a two-way radio with the other flagger, at the other end of the construction zone. To direct the flow of traffic, every few minutes he rotated his sign from "stop" on the one side to "slow" on the other. Then, after a time, back to "stop." Then back to "slow." And so on, and so on.

Bryce braced himself as he approached the repair site. Always the victim of Murphy's Law scenarios, he watched the flagger turn the sign to "stop" immediately after the third car ahead of him steered around the cones and into the one open lane. He rolled his eyes and applied the brakes, submitting to his role near the front of what would soon become a long line of cars. Bryce turned back the keys in his ignition, and the hum of his car's engine went quiet. He knew he'd be waiting a while. He rolled down his window and breathed in the warm mountain air, which at this spot was accompanied by an unpleasant asphalt aroma. Noticing that he was within earshot of the flagger, he turned off his car radio and tried to hear what he could. The flagger began to strike up a conversation with the driver of the moss-green Subaru ahead of Bryce. With a tone of genuine, almost compassionate honesty, the driver said, "I'm sorry, but that has got to be the most boring job I can imagine. How can you stand it?" Bryce leaned toward the flagger, his head half out of the window, anticipating a response to the question.

The answer surprised him.

It surprised us, too, when we heard the story. The flagger perked with enthusiasm and proudly exclaimed, without hesitation and apparently without irony, "I love this job! Love it. You know why? Because it matters. I keep people safe. I care about these guys behind me, and I keep them safe. I also keep you safe, and everyone else in all those cars behind you. I get to make a real, tangible difference every day." After a drawn-out pause, as if the flagger was trying to decide whether to say this or not, he added, "I'm grateful that I was led here."

To most people, the flagger story might seem hard to believe. The driver who asked "How can you stand it?" is far from alone in imagining the work to be unchallenging and dull, only slightly more engaging than watching paint dry, and likely with more potent fumes. Even so, the flagger obviously was an enthusiastic believer in the purpose and importance of his work. We heard this story and wondered, how can a job that on the face of it seems torturously mind-numbing provide such a strong sense of meaningfulness? This guy was not a teacher, pastor, social worker, or doctor. He definitely was not Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King Jr. He was a road construction flagger! Yet his work bears all the hallmarks of a calling. He mentioned that he had been led to his current job, implying the presence of a "caller," and hinted that he had listened to, and followed, this call. His work felt unmistakably meaningful to him and seemed to align with a broader sense of purpose ("I keep people safe"). And his work had an altruistic undercurrent. The way he saw it, he helps people—lots of people—by keeping them safe.

Of course, not all flaggers believe their work is a calling, just like not all teachers, artists, nurses, or attorneys approach their work as a calling. What is it, then, that separates this flagger from other flaggers who see work as a daily grind, little more than the means to a paycheck, for whom the phrase "Thank God it's Friday" is a life theme? What separates people within any profession—farmers, metal workers, janitors, administrative assistants, professors—who think of their work as a calling from those within their same profession who very clearly do not? Even more to the heart of the matter: What is a calling? What difference does having a calling make? What can people do to discern, experience, and live out their callings?

These questions drive us, the authors. Finding answers to them has become a primary focus of our careers. As psychological scientists, we are part of a community of scholars who have conducted dozens of research studies to help better understand this concept and the role it plays in people's lives. As career counseling specialists, we have worked with countless clients who yearn, sometimes desperately, for a calling—that is, work they feel compelled to do, that draws deeply from their sense of purpose, and that gives them a way to make a positive difference in their communities and world. A key part of our own callings consists of using carefully conducted, cutting-edge research to better understand and apply the kinds of lessons learned from the flagger Bryce encountered on the road—and from many other women and men, from all walks of life, who approach their work as a calling. Obviously, this matters to us.

It should matter to you, too.


Because understanding what it means to have a calling can help each of us examine our own lives and identify how we can transform our careers and jobs in deeply meaningful, satisfying, and life-giving ways—ways that, directly or indirectly, make the world a better place. The purpose of this book is to help you, the reader, put this understanding to use in the context of your own job, your own career, your own life.

To orient you, we begin by discussing why calling is the cause of some confusion, with diverse and sometimes competing ways of defining the term. Next, we present our approach to resolving the confusion by proposing a definition of calling in the context of work. Then we lay out our approach to the concept—one that stands on the shoulders of centuries of wisdom on calling from theologians and philosophers, but that is built on contemporary theory, a rapidly growing body of scientific research, and our own experiences as vocational psychologists. We close this chapter with a roadmap of sorts, outlining the rest of the book.

The Meaning of Calling

What does the word "calling" mean? The answer depends on whom you ask. Yale management professor Amy Wrzesniewski likens the word to a Rorschach test. The Rorschach, the projective test famous for its inkblots, provides psychotherapy clients with an ambiguous stimulus and asks them what they see, pulling for responses that are thought to reveal clues to the inner workings of their unconscious minds. Similarly, "calling" elicits a variety of definitions from people that reveal different assumptions and beliefs about the role and function of a calling in their careers and lives. In the first study to investigate directly the question of how people understand calling, we invited college students to answer a few open-ended questions about how they thought of the term. Here are the questions; go ahead, answer them yourself before reading on:

1. As it applies to your career, how do you define the word "calling"? ____________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________

2. What, specifically, does it mean for you to approach your career as a calling? ____________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________

3. Does the word "calling" apply to areas of your life other than work? Please explain. ____________________________________________________________________ ____________________________________________________________________

Of the 435 students with whom we started, a full 68 percent (!) indicated that calling was a relevant concern when they thought about their careers. Responses from this subset of students to the three questions above were analyzed to identify common themes. The results revealed that the idea of a guiding force was central to students' understanding of calling. Many identified external forces such as God, God's gifts, or destiny (one described it as "a path God has laid out for my life"); others pointed to internal sources such as an inner drive or passion (e.g., "a natural instinct or pull toward a certain field or career"). Students also stressed the importance of a strong fit between their gifts, passions, and sense of purpose with a particular job, often resulting in growth, clarity, and happiness (e.g., "It is a feeling that I can't explain, a feeling to be a part of something to better myself and others"). Finally, students pointed to making a positive impact on others as a defining feature of a calling (e.g., "being led to something because it helps others, not only myself"). Some noted that having a calling places responsibility on them to approach work with special effort and dedication. Most students expressed that calling was important not only for work, but for other aspects of life, too—relationships, education, leisure pursuits, spirituality. For some, all aspects of life were influenced by a sense of calling (one wrote, "anything you feel drawn to do for some reason, explainable or not").

Granted, these are young, idealistic college students, and we all know the real world does not run on college sophomore norms. So we followed up this study by asking these same questions to 370 university employees, representing a fairly diverse group of occupations, with faculty and administrators outnumbered by accountants, administrative assistants, information technology specialists, janitorial staff, librarians, and foresters, among others. Sixty-two percent of them indicated that the concept of calling was relevant in their careers, just 6 percent fewer than in the college student sample. Analyses of their responses to the first two questions revealed themes similar to those expressed by the students—a guiding force (with both external and internal sources identified), a sense of "fit," and altruistic motives, although a fourth primary theme also emerged that emphasized various aspects of well-being (e.g., passion, satisfaction, meaningfulness; one defined the term as "meaningful work based on my interests and values"). Also similar to the college students, the employees viewed the concept as far more expansive in scope than just one's career, with a few exceptions (one wrote, "One calling is plenty—it's pretty consuming").

Together, these two studies reinforce the reality that common themes cut across how people think of callings: the notion of a guiding force, a sense of personal "fit" with a job, and altruistic attitudes that align with a broader sense of meaning and purpose are typical for students and working adults alike, the latter of whom also think about calling in terms of the benefits it provides to well-being. Despite the overlap in how people conceptualize calling, though, some differences also emerge. For example, it is possible to sort the various ways of conceptualizing calling into two broad categories. First, neoclassical callings originate from an external source and emphasize a social duty (e.g., I am compelled or drawn to do this type of work by something or someone outside myself, and I will use it to help others). In contrast, modern callings arise from within and emphasize individual happiness (e.g., I have an inner drive toward a certain career that will make me the happiest).

This neoclassical vs. modern distinction is analogous to a sacred vs. secular distinction that scholars often make when trying to define calling. Roy Baumeister, one of the most influential research psychologists of the past half-century was among the first social scientists to explore the contrast between externally originating callings, which he tied neatly to a religious perspective, and internal, secularized callings. The religious roots of calling in one's work, which we explore further in the next chapter, are simple enough. The classical view of calling was arguably developed by the Protestant Reformers, who taught that God calls people to serve him and to serve others, through whatever work they find themselves doing, and equips them with the gifts they need to do so well. The neoclassical view retains the themes embedded in this tradition, but expands the definition to make it more inclusive. In contrast, the modern view of calling revolves around the notion of self-actualization, and links to the Romantic and Victorian perspective of artists as inwardly called to their profession by yet-to-be-created masterpieces incubating within them. "Duty to the self," Baumeister wrote of the modern view, "seems to have replaced duty to God as the source of obligation to follow a calling." Wrzesniewski concluded that the modern view is now the norm: "Callings have largely lost this religious connotation and tend to be defined in the secular sense as consisting of enjoyable or pleasurable work that the individual believes is making the world a better place."

The assumption that a modern, secularized version of calling has replaced or supplanted the neoclassical usage of the term, as is often implied, is not based on research evidence, as far as we can tell. This doesn't mean it isn't true, of course; time and data will tell. Nevertheless, these two approaches clearly are dominant today. What are the options, then, for choosing a definition? We address this question in more detail in Q&A 1 (p. 221), but for us, the literal meaning of a word, and how that word has been used historically, is very important. We are reminded of another debate over the meaning of a word, in this case, "god." Stephen Hawking, in his classic book A Brief History of Time, argued that when modern physics arrives at its holy grail—a "theory of everything"—humans will finally see into "the mind of God." Similarly, astronomer George Smoot reacted to the discovery of ripples in radiation still emanating from the big bang by declaring it "like seeing the face of God." More recently, international news media trumpeted the historic discovery of the Higgs boson, the subatamic particle so critical to understanding space, time and matter that it is now more widely known by its alias: "the God particle." Such language recasts "god" as a metaphor for awe-evoking mysteries of science, not as an eternal being who cares for people on earth. This way of using the word "god" is not sanctioned by Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg. "If language is to be of any use to us," said Weinberg in an interview, "we ought to try to preserve the meanings of words, and 'god' historically has not meant the laws of nature, it has meant an 'interested personality.' I rather grieve that they use the word 'god' because I do think that one should have loyalty to the way words are used historically." On this point, we are in Weinberg's camp, and therefore our definition of calling reflects an attempt to preserve—indeed, reclaim—the literal and historic meaning of the word.

What We Mean When We Say "Calling"

Calling, when used as a noun, refers to a command, request, or invitation to go somewhere or do something. This implies a "caller"—that is, an issuer of the call, a source of the summons. Throughout history the term also has implied a responsibility to work in a way that is useful and helpful to others. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffrey Thompson highlight the importance of duty and destiny—"notions that figure centrally in the classical and neoclassical views but that play little if any role in modern conceptualizations." The literal meaning of the term supports the idea that a calling comes from an external source, and its historic use emphasizes embracing and pursuing a calling as a duty to society and the common good.

Formally, we define "calling" as a transcendent summons, experienced as originating beyond the self, to approach a particular life role in a manner oriented toward demonstrating or deriving a sense of purpose or meaningfulness and that holds other-oriented values and goals as primary sources of motivation. Admittedly, this is both wordy and academic-speak, so let's break it down into its component parts. (A quick disclaimer first: Callings can apply to potentially any "particular life role," a point we explore later. The focus of this book is on one's work and career, however, so that is our context for this discussion.)


Excerpted from Make Your Job a Calling by Bryan Dik, Ryan Duffy. Copyright © 2012 Bryan J. Dik and Ryan D. Duffy. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments / ix
Part 1: Calling in the Twenty-fi rst Century
Chapter 1. Recovering Calling / 1
Chapter 2. What Work Means, and the Difference It Makes / 23
Part 2: Dimensions of Calling
Chapter 3. Listening / 45
Chapter 4. Making Meaning / 65
Chapter 5. Serving Others / 87
Part 3: Discovering and Living a Calling
Chapter 6. Forging a Path / 109
Chapter 7. Job Crafting / 131
Chapter 8. Callings outside of Paid Work / 151
Part 4: Boundary Conditions and Challenges of a Calling
Chapter 9. Perils and Pitfalls / 173
Chapter 10. A Role for Calling in the Changing World of Work / 197
Questions and Answers / 221
Notes / 253
Index / 269

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