Recommended: Davis Brooks Goes Deep

Five Techniques for Chasing Your Unanswered Callings [Research Summary]


In Every Good Endeavor, Timothy Keller introduces the book by referencing back to Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, starting with a passage on the perils of individualism at the expense of all else:

“We are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, [but] our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing… The sacredness of the individual is not balanced by any sense of the whole or concern for the common good.”

But a calling… a calling is inherently intertwined with the idea of the common good. It is fueled by a desire to serve a higher purpose in some way. And this is the idea Bellah promotes:

“To make a real difference… [there would have to be] a reappropriating of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.”

In a 2010 paper, Adam Grant, best-selling author of Give & Take, Originals and professor at Wharton, and co-author Justin Berg did a series of 49 interviews to understand what people do when they feel a calling that isn’t fulfilled by their job. I want to share some of the directional findings they proposed to fuel future research on the topic, which I believe can help you find more fulfillment in your work.

A calling is something you feel you can’t not do

I think of a calling as a topic or cause that I simply can’t get out of my brain. It’s something I feel so pulled towards that I can’t let it go and that I feel dissatisfied if I can’t find an outlet to exercise it.

When I boil my callings down, I believe they are something like these:

  • Building teams through servant leadership
  • Writing and storytelling to share ideas
  • Advocating for or creating solutions to society-level problems

In the study, which they called When Callings Are Calling: Crafting Work and Leisure in Pursuit of Unanswered Occupational Callings,” Grant and Berg define a calling this way:

“an occupation that an individual 1) feels drawn to pursue, 2) expects to be intrinsically enjoyable, and 3) sees as central part of his or her identity.”

A 2005 paper went further to suggest a calling :

“1) comes from within an individual, 2) serves the individuals and/or community, 3) is found after much searching, and 4) provides a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment.”

One thing I am certain of: a calling is something that is hard to ignore. It eats at you and pushes you until you find a way to answer the call.

Jobs, careers, and callings are three different ways of thinking about work

If you read my work, I would put money on the fact that you’re more likely to feel a sense of calling in your own life. But that’s not the default for everyone. The interviews in the study led the authors to define three orientations towards work. 

A “job orientation” is one where you think about your job as a necessity of life. It provides you with money to provide for basic sustenance and not much else. “If they were financially secure, they would no longer continue with their current line of work,” as the study puts it.

A “career orientation” treats work as a way to achieve progress towards goals and career ambitions. Your current job isn’t the job you want in 5 years because you want to have a better job. Career progression in the form of raises and promotions are the name of the game here.

A “calling orientation” assumes work and identity are one and the same. You are in your current job because you believe the work makes the world a better place and you enjoy it. When you talk about who you are, you share what you do for work as one of the first elements of your identity. When you’re not working, you’re often researching topics or connecting with others related to your work. 

The study focused on the subset of individuals who embraced a “calling orientation” but who felt they had unanswered callings, which included 31 of 49 interviewees. The other 18 either didn’t view a job as a calling to begin with or saw their current job as their calling. 

An unanswered calling can exist in two different scenarios:

  1. Your current role is not aligned with your sense of callings, which means you have “missed callings” that are going unanswered
  2. Your current role is aligned with one of your callings, but you have additional unanswered calling(s)

These two groups used several different tactics to try to pursue their unanswered callings more directly. If you believe you have an unanswered calling, the rest of this article shares the tactics you can use to answer those callings going forward. 

5 Techniques for Pursuing Your Unanswered Calling

There are essentially two ways to fulfill your calling when your job isn’t providing full coverage. First, you can use a tactic called job crafting, in which you work to change your job in some way to make it more aligned with what you want. Second, you can use a tactic called leisure crafting, in which you find hobbies and other outlets for fulfillment.

The study found that professionals with more flexibility and authority, or those in supportive work cultures, were more likely to use job crafting to alter aspects of their everyday work. Some jobs, meanwhile didn’t allow for the same flexibility because of lack of seniority, nature of job responsibilities, or culture. The professionals in the latter case most often turned to leisure crafting. 

Job crafting is a way to change your role at work so that it aligns more with your calling

Job crafting is the tactic to use when you have the flexibility to shift your responsibilities to fit your calling at work. There are three ways you can practice job crafting.

Technique 1: Task emphasizing

Here’s how the study describes this tactic:

“Task emphasizing involved highlighting tasks that are already a part of one’s job to pursue an unanswered calling, either by 1) changing the nature of an assigned task to incorporate aspects of an unanswered calling or by 2) dedicating additional time, energy, or attention to an assigned responsibility that is related to an unanswered calling.”

Here’s an example from one of the roles on our team at ConvertKit. Let’s say you’re an affiliate manager and your job is designed to maximize the revenue we earn through our affiliate network of creators. You have autonomy over the tactics you use to do this, which might include strategic planning sessions with creators, writing content and designing assets to help them promote our product, teaching creators how to become effective affiliate marketers, and more.

If you have an unanswered calling for teaching, you might work with your manager to create one or more online training courses to help creators grow their businesses through affiliate marketing. You’d be both achieving your objective and growing the business. Win win.

Technique 2: Job expanding

A second tactic involves taking more responsibility:

“Job expanding involves adding tasks to incorporate aspects of an unanswered calling, either by 1) taking on short-term, temporary tasks or by 2) adding new tasks to a job.”

Back on the ConvertKit team, let’s say you’re a software engineer who really enjoys writing clean, quality code. You also have a deep passion for solving problems for creators through product management and design.

You see an opportunity for your engineering team to do more customer research in order to improve the features you build into the product. So you step up and take on more responsibility for customer interviews, watching in-app sessions of customers, and writing detailed research posts for use by your team each build cycle.

Technique 3: Role reframing

The third and final tactic involves thinking differently about the impact of your work. Sometimes answering a calling is as simple as reframing your mindset:

“Role reframing involves altering one’s perception of the meaning of his or her work to match an unanswered calling, either by 1) establishing a cognitive connection to align the conventional social purpose of a job responsibility with an unanswered calling or by 2) broadening the conventional social purpose of a job responsibility to incorporate an unanswered calling.”

In this case, let’s say you’re a customer support team member who cares deeply about providing for basic needs of people around the world. Your core day-to-day work is answering questions from customers and helping them solve thorny technical problems with our product. While you love solving people’s problems with clearly communicated solutions, for a long time you can’t connect what you do with what your calling for solving for basic needs of others.

Then, you learn about the company’s giving program, in which we give a % of profit to support three organizations who provide housing, clean water, and medical care to people in need around the world. Now you’re able to make a connection between the work you do to keep customers happy to the company being profitable to the impact your collective work has on basic needs of people all over. This reframing can be as powerful as changing your own actions. 

When you use these three tactics to change your job or the way you think about it, you’re more likely to experience joy and meaning at work. By contrast, a second group of tactics called leisure crafting will help you experience more meaning and joy outside of work.

Leisure crafting is a way to find hobbies and experiences to fulfill your calling outside of work

Sometimes, there simply isn’t room to shape your job to fit your calling(s). This might be due to a strict manager, a demanding and physical role, or organizational culture. 

The study found two specific tactics for “leisure crafting.”

Technique 1: Vicarious experiencing

One way to experience the joy of your calling outside of work is to experience it through the lens of other people’s experience.

“Vicarious experiencing involves seeking fulfillment through other people’s participation in an unanswered calling — including family, friends, or celebrities — which provides the sort of enjoyable and meaningful experiences that one associates with pursuing the unanswered calling as his or her own occupation.”

As a parent, this might look like finding joy in seeing one of your children pursue a calling of your own (while maintaining a healthy detachment if it’s not as interesting to them).

Alternatively, I would propose that many podcasters are practicing this exact technique through interviews with people who do work related to one of their deep interests or passions. What better way to experience many different callings than to regularly have in-depth conversations with fascinating people in a variety of fields?

Tecnique 2: Hobby participating

“Hobby participating involves engaging in activities and volunteer positions outside of work that individuals perceive as related to an unanswered calling, which may facilitate experiences of enjoyment and meaning in lieu of pursuing the unanswered calling in a formal occupational role.”

This goes beyond simply finding hobbies that are fun and interesting. The study looked at interviewees who specifically pursued hobbies that directly fulfilled one or more callings outside of work.

If we go back to the customer support person I used as an example above, they might also choose to participate in a hobby that allows them to do meaningful work on behalf of those in need.

For example, the same person could fulfill their calling by volunteering at a food pantry, serving as a community leader for Habitat for Humanity, or organizing a clothing drive every holiday season. 

While the job crafting techniques make it more likely that you’ll experience joy and meaning at work, leisure crafting techniques will leave your experience of work unchanged as you feel more joy and meaning outside of work.

Both positive and negative experiences can push us to chase our callings

The core of the study focused on the five core techniques for shaping your work or leisure to answer a calling. But the creators went on to outline the conditions under which we’re motivated to do either one to begin with.

They found that there was a difference between people with missed callings (people who’s jobs do not fulfill a calling at all) vs additional callings (people whose jobs fulfill a calling and who also have other callings). 

People with missed callings tended to pursue these techniques as a way to avoid future negative experiences — as if they were trying to will their way out of negative experiences at work by doing things they’re passionate about. 

As we pursue these missed callings, the downside is that our efforts can lead us to feel regrets and frustrations about the opportunities we’ve missed to pursue our callings in the past

People with additional callings were motivated by wanting to create even more positive experiences outside of their work. This quest was often triggered by positive experiences outside of work to begin with. 

As we pursue additional callings, we can sometimes experience regret when we get overwhelmed by taking on more than we can handle due to limited time, energy, or attention. 

Use these five tactics to fulfill your own unanswered callings

If you feel like you have a calling that’s been unanswered, then use one of the five techniques we talked about above to bring it to life:

  1. Do more of what you love in your current job responsibilities
  2. Take on new responsibilities that expand your role
  3. Reframe your thinking about your job to emphasize the good parts
  4. Read about, spend time with, or interview people who do work related to your calling
  5. Find hobbies that directly answer your calling

When you do, you might experience hints of regret or overwhelm on occasion. In exchange, you’ll get to experience more joy and meaning in life. That sounds like a win to me. 

Berg, J.M., A.M. Grant, V. Johnson. 2010. When Callings Are Calling: Crafting Work and Leisure in Pursuit of Unanswered Occupational Callings. Organization Science 21(5) 973-994

Keller, Timothy J.,Alsdorf, Katherine Leary. 2012. Every good endeavor :connecting your work to God’s work. DuttonNew York.TweetShare