The dream of giving up the daily grind and finding a true vocation has fuelled a million job searches. But can our often elusive ‘calling’ be found?
If you found it hard to get out of bed and go to work this morning then the idea that you would be more content in your job, if only you could find your true vocation, may be attractive.
However, research by Dr Shoshana Dobrow, an assistant professor in LSE’s Department of Management, challenges the idea that a ‘calling’ can be sought and found. Encouragingly, it suggests that, instead, people can develop callings.
“People are fascinated by what it could look like to experience work in a deep and meaningful way. The problem with popular representations of a calling is the idea that you can go and find it. And if only you can find it, all will be well in your life,” says Dr Dobrow.
“The idea of a calling is also compelling because, at some level, humans are seeking some understanding of the meaning of life. Calling speaks to that; it taps into a very high level existential need and interest in who we are as human beings.”
Dr Dobrow has been studying 450 amateur musicians since 2001 when they were enrolled at two summer high school music programmes in the United States.
These musicians were younger than most people who have been studied in career and organizational behaviour research and, because of this, have provided a real-time window into the evolution of a calling and its impact on career decisions.
For the purposes of her study Dobrow defines calling as ‘a consuming, meaningful passion people experience towards a domain’ – music in this case.
She assessed the musicians’ level of calling by getting them to rate a series of statements such as ‘I am passionate about playing my instrument/singing’ and ‘Playing music is a deeply moving and gratifying experience for me’.
Alongside this she looked at three factors that previous research suggests may predict the development of calling: the musicians’ ability; how involved they were with musical activities; and how socially comfortable they felt around other musicians.
The research revealed that involvement with, and feeling socially comfortable in, the musical world were linked to higher initial levels of calling, while musical ability was not.
“We can have some control over developing our callings, if that’s something we want. Rather than aiming to go out and find one in a eureka moment, people can instead strive to develop a calling through purposeful involvement in a particular domain,” says Dobrow.
She followed the musicians as they advanced from high school through college, through to post-college life – for example starting graduate school or work.
“Tracking people across real time and career decisions for such a long period is quite rare. But the effort involved in this kind of longitudinal research is extremely worthwhile in helping us to understand real-life phenomena,” says Dobrow.
She found that, on average, the level of the musicians’ calling decreased over the seven years of the study. Burnout, a loss of excitement about being a musician (habituation) or changing values and priorities over time could explain these results. Some participants did experience an increase in their calling, but it is not clear why.
“A calling is not a static thing and this raises questions about the role a calling can and should play in an individual’s career decision-making,” says Dobrow.
Perhaps worryingly, her research has also shown that those with a strong initial calling are more likely to ignore career advice from a trusted mentor such as a music teacher.
She explains: “A calling can be a double-edged sword. It could be compared with being a compulsive gambler in that it may foster tunnel vision and obliviousness to risky decisions. But it can also provide someone with the passion and persistence to bulldoze through whatever stands in his or her way.”
However, Dobrow stresses that we shouldn’t feel pressure to experience work in this extreme way.
“If people feel they need a strong calling toward their work and they are not getting that, then they may have a problem,” she says. “But, for the rest of us, our work provides us with just one piece of our life’s ‘meaning’. We can balance that out with other aspects of our lives to bring a satisfying level of overall meaning to our lives.”
Posted: 3 March 2014
Dr Shoshana Dobrow is an assistant professor in the Department of Management
'Dynamics of calling: a longitudinal study of musicians' Shoshana Dobrow, Journal of Organizational Behaviour