What does it mean to have a calling?
If you think of calling as a fitting career or meaningful work that ignites passion and provides a sense of purpose, you are not alone. But that is a very incomplete view. In my book, "Conversations About Calling," I've traced the meaning of calling across centuries to understand the original idea, how far we've drifted from it, and why that drift matters today. The brief summary that follows reveals how I arrived at the theory that informs my work and how this expanded definition of calling can benefit you and your organization.
History in Brief
John Calvin, a Reformation theologian, is largely responsible for infusing the idea of calling into Western thought. (Other ancient cultures have comparable ideas). Calvin described calling as a way of life, not just the call to a profession when he said:
...calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing.
Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536
“The Lord bids each one of us in all life's actions to look to his calling.”
"...calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of well-doing. And if there is anyone who will not direct himself to it, he will never hold to the straight path in his duties."
Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536
Yes, and I'm the guy that actually told people how to live their callings. Anything you want to know about selecting fitting work, multiple callings, why and when to switch callings, how to create a 'foundation for well-doing' - it's in my book!
Reverend Richard Baxter
Christian Directory or a Body of Practical Divinity
Directions for our Labour and Callings 1673
Calling is a way of being that animates all that we do. It once had profoundly positive personal, social and practical implications. Over the centuries however, this original idea of calling was distorted by captains of commerce who created different interpretations of calling to serve their own economic interests. Still, Baxter's writings were so practical, profound and prolific that Max Weber referred to them 230 years later -- when he wrote about calling as a work ethic that energized the industrial revolution.
In 1903, two sociologists, Max Weber and W.E.B. DuBois, warned about the corrosive effects of capitalism on calling and how people approached work. Weber feared that calling would become a "ghost" of the original idea, which would adversely impact society. As an antidote, DuBois advocated for education that restored the character of a calling and emphasized the quality of all work, rather than narrowly focusing on vocational skills.
“... in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said:' "Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved."
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1903
“And the final result of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man. And to make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living -- not sordid money getting, not apples of gold.The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. ”
W. E. B. DuBois
The Souls of Black Folks, 1903
Despite their warnings, the nation's focus on vocation persisted and the drift toward calling as a fitting career increased as the Human Relations movement gained momentum in the mid-20th century.
The result: What we do is increasingly disconnected from how we do it, resulting in people who are...
...Specialists without Spirit
Max Weber, 1903
Dorothy Sayers blamed the church for this disconnect and for allowing commerce to impose self-serving meanings on work. (The reasons are too complicated to discuss here, but are in my book.) Sayers said:
“In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.” “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”
Dorothy L. Sayers
"Why Work?," in Creed or Chaos? 1948
Sayers had quite a lot to say about the sacred meanings of work. One of her primary concerns was declining quality as a serious moral and social issue that the church could and should address.
“The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. . . No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth.”
Dorothy L Sayers
Why Work in Creed or Chaos 1948
Sayers argued that, from 'the creation' to Jesus' carpentry, Christianity was concerned with the quality and goodness of work. Now, despite centuries of philosophers' writings, the meaning of calling has been diluted to mean merely 'fitting work.'
The point of this brief review is not that calling has lost its religious meaning; it's that conversations about calling now narrowly focus on passion about a fitting career. Meanwhile, character strengths, commitment to quality and community that once made calling a powerfully positive social and economic force, are not part of the conversation, or are only at the margins. As more people become 'specialists without spirit,' organizations and society suffer the consequences.
Why does a calling matter in modern organizations?
We need Specialists with SpiritTM, who live their calling in a traditional sense, to promote economic competitiveness, employee engagement and ethics.
Although the U.S. is highly competitive, ranked #1 globally in 2018, that competitive strength is precarious. According to the World Economic Forum, economic competitiveness rests on 12 pillars and recent rankings highlight cracks in the pillars of: primary education (#25), health (#34), infrastructure (#9), public institutions (#20), and public trust in politicians (#16). Specialists with Spirit™ can strengthen these vital pillars to insure more sustainable economic vitality.
Only 30% of U.S. employees are fully engaged at work! That's better than most countries; Gallup found that only 13% of employees are engaged worldwide. Employee disengagement costs businesses roughly $500 million annually, due in part to presenteeism and poor quality. Lack of engagement is due to bad managers, mindless and meaningless work, and employees’ own lack of motivation. In contrast, Specialists with Spirit™ are intrinsically motivated to be highly engaged and to do their best work, which results in benefits for individuals (e.g., satisfaction and skills) and organizations (e.g., innovation, problem solving, quality).
The U.S. ranks 23rd in ethics and corruption and 19th in corporate ethics worldwide (WEF 2018), leaving considerable room for improvement. While the cost of scandals is obvious, the hidden cost of everyday unethical behaviors are insidious and difficult to quantify including, reputational damage, need for increased supervision, toxic work climate, inability to retain employees, loss of customers and lawsuits. However, because Specialists with Spirit™ adhere to principles and professional standards, they can enhance the ethical culture of work.
How can we restore the robust benefits of a calling?
By cultivating Specialists with Spirit™ -- people who are conscious and committed to standards and principles that transcend passion and personal interests as they pursue vocational goals -- and even when they don't. Doing this requires reviving and strengthening connections between profession, character and a sense of duty. I've drawn upon ancient wisdom and applied it to modern times to bridge this gap.
Conceptual Model of Calling
Becoming a Specialist with Spirit
Adapted From: Conversations About Calling: Advancing Management Perspectives p153
Valerie Myers 2013.
Valerie L. Myers, Ph.D. Copyright © 2013 All Rights Reserved
My goal is to provide steps that help you more fully live your calling -- regardless of where you are on the path. This conceptual model illustrates the ideal calling of a Specialist with Spirit™.
A Specialist with Spirit’s™ calling is comprised of 3 interdependent dimensions: destiny, duty and disposition, which are cultivated throughout the lifespan. The lifespan, represented by the spiral staircase, denotes highs, lows, and effort that are part of living your calling. Each step reflects new challenges and requires different skills, strengths and supports.
DESTINY A sense of destiny illuminates that path and inspires us to develop vocational skills. But dreams change, expand and are sometimes delayed or denied. You can’t always get what you want. Destiny is both what you want from life and what life gives you.
DUTY To whom and to what standards are you committed? Why are they worthy of your devotion? Specialists with Spirit™ live with a sense of duty to principles, the work, themselves, others and society.
DISPOSITION Disposition is the character strengths and weaknesses that shape us; coping skills that shape our response to circumstances; and the spirit that animates what we do. This is the heart of a calling.