Op-Ed: A Calling-Centered Approach to Career Exploration

May 1, 2021 | By Joe DeGraaf

Career Planning written on wall with graph

TAGS: coaching, counseling, journal,

NACE Journal, May 2021

Over the past few years, there has been a shift in focus for career services. Current and recently graduated students are pursuing work they hope will provide meaning and allow them to make an impact. Career services professionals are left to find ways that adequately connect meaning and purpose to career development and placement.

The concepts of purpose, meaning, and calling have all gained considerable traction over the last decade, both in everyday conversations and scholarly work. Millennials and now Gen Z students have shifted motivations from the paycheck to the meaning a career can provide. They want to work in places that honor their values and do things that will have the impact they want to affect on the world.

Career services professionals have been wrestling with this growing trend as they seek to find ways of best meeting the needs of their students. It is one thing to help someone find work they are good at, one that uses their specific training or strengths. It is another to find something they are good at, while simultaneously meeting their understanding of meaning and purpose.

This has been reflected in recent innovations and the transition from career adviser to career coach. There is a greater focus on deepening awareness and meaningful goal setting, alongside the traditional methods of career professionals. While some career services professionals may already be providing a kind of coaching that digs deeper into the long-term intentions and internal purpose of their students, all career services professionals can benefit from a calling-centered approach to career coaching.

Career Calling

Among the research conducted on purpose and meaning over the past decade is the idea of a career calling. Calling is something that many of us have heard of in various places, but rarely attach to our own experience. Until recently, anyone not in a religious or ministry setting likely saw calling as something they did not belong to or with which they could not identify.

This disparity stems from calling’s origins. The concept of calling first originated in the Protestant Reformation in the Christian church, with Martin Luther describing his reforming of the church his “call” from God. Since that time, clergy from various backgrounds have used the term calling to refer to their feeling of being called to ministry or religious service.

Despite its religious origins, the concept of “calling” is now being more broadly redefined for a larger audience. Tracing its roots back to the idea of a vocation, or the Latin vocatio (to call), calling is being seen as a universal application of purposeful work and life. Though calling has a unique and significant meaning for those in religious settings or with certain religious beliefs, research has been expanded to all those who live out a purposeful life and work.1

Still in its formational period, the term calling has only been researched in earnest since around the time of the Great Recession. In 2007, researchers Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffy attempted to define calling in a more general sense, describing it 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 source of motivation.”2

In more simple terms, a calling is a sense of purpose or meaning that comes from and serves something or someone beyond the self. The “call,” in these definitions, does not have to originate from the divine but simply from something external.

For career services professionals, this calling can be a driving force for students as they consider career opportunities that best fit their areas of strength. It is a call that is unique to each individual, allowing for similar work to be done for a variety of reasons. For example, no two career advisers or coaches are the same. They may do similar work with similar goals, but feel two entirely different motivations to their work. They are called to different purposes within a similar work that uses their strengths.

What unites these concepts of calling is their altruistic nature. A calling is not in service to our own pleasures and passions. We often find our best and most satisfying work when we are serving others or some area of need in the world. This is not limited to the high bars of curing cancer or world peace, but includes more subtle impacts, such as improving another’s day or providing a listening ear. No matter our profession, calling provides a lens for understanding what will fulfill us in our daily work.

The Value of Calling on Careers

The desire of career services professionals to meet the trending needs for meaningful work provides strong advocacy for calling. But calling allows us to go further, providing avenues to important metrics of value that are both in demand and difficult to come by.

Most individuals want to feel a sense of satisfaction with their life and work. They search out careers and opportunities that will bring them this feeling of satisfaction. Calling provides direction for these pursuits in identifying the purpose that will bring about satisfaction in both work and life.

Beyond this, calling has also been shown to increase the amount of commitment and emotional investment a person feels toward their work. This gives them greater confidence in their chosen path and an enhanced feeling that their work is meaningful, no matter what it is. All of these factors help to improve the engagement, resiliency, and career decision self-efficacy an individual feels in their life.

While all of this is based in strong scholarly support, all of this makes intuitive sense as well. When an individual feels led to use their skills to intentionally serve a purpose beyond themselves, this naturally creates a sense of meaning in their life and work. When this meaning is pursued, it creates a higher level of engagement, commitment, and overall confidence. When we search out and live our calling, we step out with a strongly supported intentionality that can sustain and fulfill us.

Using a calling-centered approach in career services allows students and job seekers to tap into a deeper purpose, a source of meaning that acts as a catalyst for the rest of their lives. Students will walk away from these sessions with a deeper understanding of their pursuits as well as a potential map for attaining the fulfilling lives they seek to lead.

What a Calling-Centered Approach Looks Like

A calling-centered approach to career services can take a variety of forms. As each person’s calling is unique, each conversation and workshop is also unique. However, there are some commonalities in approach that can provide a framework for successfully exploring calling with clients.

1. Use a coaching process: Each person will have a different sense of calling, even when they share many similarities in goals and personality. Using some of the best practices of coaching will allow for a more in-depth and personalized approach to these conversations.

Some of these may include stepping into each conversation with genuine curiosity and doing your best to leave your plan at the door. Explore the aspects of calling together by asking curious questions, exploring motivations, and seeking understanding rather than just giving advice.

2. Internal exploration: It’s important to start with an exploration of their internal self. This may draw out some of the conflicts they feel toward a particular work or ways they operate in the world they have never realized before. Help them understand the values and beliefs they have about themselves, the world, and others. Work with them to pursue clarity over their unique strengths and talents, the ways they can add value to the world in their own way. Look at their passions and the things that get them excited, what makes them jump out of bed in the morning or sacrifice their time.

In all of these conversations, pay attention and ask questions about some of the experiences that have helped shape them. Understanding the positive and negative of how each person has become who they are today can shed light on places that may be driving them.

3. External exploration: After an individual has deeper awareness of who they are and what is intrinsically motivating them, it is important to look at the world they want to engage with. Identifying the needs, opportunities, people, groups, and places that specifically call to them is essential to an effective calling-centered approach.

As we help individuals identify these external “calls,” we help match them with real possibilities for potential career pursuits. If we leave the process at self-exploration, we are left with individuals who are able to only see what is directly in front of them. This does not help lead them to a path, only the next step. Going beyond this is what will help tie an individual to a lifelong pursuit of purposeful living and give them access to the benefits calling can provide.

4. Your own calling: Calling is not only for students. Calling is present for all of us and can be used for our purposes. It does not require that we switch jobs or careers, though that may be an eventual result for some. Instead, when we seek to understand our own calling and how we can use our current work to pursue it, we can find new ways of accessing our greatest engagement and talent. Using your own calling as a way to motivate your work will allow you to bring out the best in others, to provide greater service, and use your unique approach.

The Impact of Calling

Calling is a powerful way of adding deep value to traditional career services. It can be pursued on its own, but, when partnered with career professionals, can offer impact that will continue to shape students for the rest of their lives.

What if every client who left your office knew their purpose in life and how to apply that to their work? A calling-centered approach to career services allows us to do just that, to go beyond where we are and meet the needs of our changing world, one individual at a time.


1Duffy, R. D., Allan, B. A. & Bott, E. M. (2011). Calling and life satisfaction among undergraduate students: Investigating mediators and moderators. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13(3), 469-479. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-011-9274-6.

2 Dik, B. J. & Duffy, R. D. (2007). Calling and vocation at work. The Counseling Psychologist, 37(3), 424-450. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000008316430.

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