The Confusion of Calling

What makes work meaningful for us? What does it mean to “have a calling?”

This was the central question at this year’s National Career Development Association conference held in Chicago last week. Of course, the topic had our ears perk up: we’re obsessed with helping clients to find, and put action toward, meaning, fulfillment and purpose on their career journeys – not just the next job.

According to the latest research out of Purdue University, University of Florida and University of Bern, there’s a big difference between having a calling and living out your calling. If we pay attention to our own day-to-day experience, we can sometimes notice that we feel “called” to something – we can get connected to “what lights us up” – but to live it out is something entirely different.


Professor Andreas Hirschi noted that those of us who are privileged enough (and it’s important to note the privilege part!) to live out our calling are more likely to work in resource-rich environments, that include a fair dose of autonomy, significance and support.

It’s hard to say which comes first: working within our calling or getting warmer toward it? Or the environment in which we work being an incubator and encourager of our calling?

One thing that appears certain: if you have a calling and you don’t take action on it, it’s not necessarily benign. In fact, your satisfaction in life is directly correlated. This reminds us of Dr. Brené Brown’s assertion that unused creativity is not benign either.

Another thing, according to researcher Kelsey Autin at University of Florida?

Helping others as a source of meaning in work is most common, regardless of the type of work you’re doing.

And finally, a great quote from Professor Blake Allan at Purdue University:

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We invite you, always, to consider micro ways to get on a path toward your calling – and discovering it in community.