It's time to debunk the ‘one true calling’ myth

Why the idea of a "one true calling" is a myth
An article from our expert

Sonia Valente

Sonia Valente is an author and certified career transition coach passionate about multipotentialite professionals

“What was I born to do?” and “What’s my true path?” are common questions. But are you too focused on finding your one true calling? It’s normal to feel that pressure these days. In our digital era, there’s no shortage of career changers who managed to follow their dreams, or of digital tools promising to help you find your true calling. Finding your one true calling is akin to self-actualization, which is right at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Personally, I’ve always bought into it. Haven’t you?

But since I’ve been immersed in the world of personal development and career switching for three years now, my view of this popular concept has shifted. Through my coaching business and discussions with professionals, I’ve come to realize that the concept of a true calling does more harm than good. It often hides a set of injunctions that trigger negative feelings. What exactly makes the idea of a professional calling so compelling? Here’s a closer look at boredom in the workplace.

The one true calling: from religious concept to self-help darling

A little background is needed to understand how the concept of a true calling has taken over the professional sphere. It began as a religious idea. Described by religious men and women as “life’s true mission”, it was something you found without really looking. Being divinely chosen for a calling meant you had a duty to follow it, dedicating your entire life to preaching God’s word.

With the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, the one true calling became a more voluntary idea but was still bound by the same injunction. According to him, the quest for peace and happiness comes with the duty to do some serious soul-searching. It involves answering life’s big questions: “Who am I? What can I make of my life? What will I do?” It’s up to each individual to choose an occupation, a job that aligns with their true nature and innermost desires.

But how many people actually have a true calling? In previous generations – for example, your grandparents’ – work was seen more as a means of providing for the basic needs of you and your family. It was less about self-actualization and finding meaning in life. But when millennials exploded onto the job scene in the 2000s, the whole notion of work was radically transformed. Now work had to be synonymous with meaning, fulfillment, work-life balance and enjoyment. The one true calling had made a swift comeback. In mere decades, the quest for a professional calling has become everyone’s business.

But what does a true calling mean today? The answer is anything but straightforward. That’s why I decided to ask the members of my private Facebook group. And the responses I got were diverse. Some defined a true calling along emotional and sensory lines – a gut feeling – while others had a more pragmatic and intellectual take, focused on commitment, interest and talent. But through research and feedback, I came to the conclusion that the definition lies somewhere between talent and passion.

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Not everyone has a calling

The idea commonly conveyed by personal-development practitioners is that everyone has a unique talent, passion or interest. And by transforming any of these into a job, you can finally achieve lasting success and fulfillment. There are many people whose experiences support this argument: “I’ve found my niche,”“My life now has meaning,” or “I’ve always been good at listening to people, so being a therapist was a given.”But what happens when you don’t have a transcendent talent or passion? If you don’t have one true calling, does that automatically mean you’ll lead a rudderless existence? Are you destined to be a failure? Will you be relegated to the sad category of eternal loser?

Even without answering these questions, it’s obvious that frustration is a chronic condition today. Many people are constantly pressured – either directly or indirectly – to find their professional calling in life.

Direct pressure: family influences and upbringing.“What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What do you want to become?” are common questions. And if your parents or grandparents found their one true calling, then their descendants’ frustration can turn into despair. In my role as a coach, I’ve noticed a depressing trend – French recruiters today are still wary of candidates who change jobs or sectors. Being without one true calling or not wanting to be locked into a single career path is too often seen as a sign of instability.

As for indirect pressure to find a true calling, just browse your local bookstore. On the best-seller shelf, you’re likely to find at least one self-help book aimed at helping you to find your true calling. This quest is so omnipresent that it’s created a new division in the labor market, with those who have a calling and those who don’t. Those who follow their true calling are put on a pedestal. They’re viewed as competent, courageous and deeply in touch with their internal motivators. As a result, they’re examples to follow at all costs. On the other side of the spectrum are those who haven’t found their real purpose, those who are coasting through life, and those who don’t have the “guts” to devote themselves to one true calling.

Callings lock us into a specialization

What happens when someone leaves their one true calling behind? They are often misunderstood by those around them: “What a shame! You were so good at it. Why change now?”Such knee-jerk reactions generate feelings of guilt in anyone who dares to think differently. And this guilt can be strong. It even stops people from changing course.

However, unlike the idea of one true calling, work isn’t just about talent and passion. It’s a holistic notion that encompasses not only “what you do” – the core of your profession – but all the trappings. There are the relationships you have with colleagues or clients, the conditions and environment in which you carry out your profession, the work-life balance it allows you and the salary you get from it. All these things play a role in your development.

For instance, even if you were born to be a nurse because you love caring for others, there’s no guarantee you’ll experience long-term fulfillment. You may want to change professions because the hours aren’t conducive to starting a family. Perhaps your vision of care no longer aligns with the facility where you work. Or maybe it’s just because, as a complex and multifaceted being, you want to explore new horizons and try working in another field.

Besides the guilt it induces in many, I believe that connecting your one true calling to “talent” can even affect your employability. Let me explain. This concept often entails being locked into a specialization where you practise a core skill. But what if your profession radically changes or even disappears? In an era where an increasing number of professions are going digital, this question should be taken seriously. Many professions are undergoing radical changes, outpaced by new technologies. For instance, in today’s job market, your mastery of graphic-design software and digital drawing tools far outweighs your ability to put pen to paper. It’s a fact – to stay employable, you must adapt to these changes and even reinvent yourself professionally by developing new skills. In this context, having one true calling won’t ensure long-term success. And pressuring people to find their calling and fulfill their duty for the rest of their lives isn’t always realistic.

You can have a true calling outside of work

Fortunately, not everyone buys into the idea that you must make your passion or talent into your living. A “resistance” is growing, showing that it’s possible to lead a professionally fulfilling life without having one true calling. And there are many more dissenters than you might imagine. Think about it for a moment, and ask around: how many people without a true calling do you know who still find their jobs fulfilling and rewarding? Many find meaning in their lives by expressing their talents and innermost motivators – but just in their free time.

I’d take it further. Keeping your true calling from turning into a job might be a wise choice. Let’s imagine a woman who is passionate about writing and cinema. She’s always had a vivid imagination and loves telling stories. She could have pursued these interests as a career. But she wanted a more stable and financially secure job. Today, she works as a customer adviser in a bank. She is now free to express her passion outside of work, which ends up being a great advantage.

Sometimes, pursuing your true calling has the opposite effect from the one you expected. You may end up being disillusioned simply because your relationship to your passion shifts over time. It’s no longer a matter of doing it once in a while when you’re inspired. You have to do it all the time and make a living from it. When it’s a hobby, there’s less pressure. You go at your own pace – and passion can be an escape that energizes you. But when it becomes an income-generating activity, it’s immediately more daunting.

You don’t need to have one true calling. You don’t need to make a career out of your passion to feel good about your job and your life. If the concept of a true calling helps some people, that’s great. But I firmly believe that, for the vast majority, it’s a seductive trap. It prevents you from seeing other ways of achieving self-actualization and fulfillment.

Translated by: Andrea Schwam

Photo by Welcome to the Jungle

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Sonia Valente

Sonia Valente is an author and certified career transition coach passionate about multipotentialite professionals

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