Acton Institute Powerblog

When work as ‘calling’ becomes an idol unto self

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Propelled by an expansion in economic opportunity and the resounding cultural calls to “follow your passions,” today’s workers are more easily latching on to the notion of work as “calling,” or a pursuit of “deeper meaning.”

Of course, in many ways, it’s a positive development. For Christians, in particular, we hold a view of work as service to neighbor and thus to God, one that proceeds from a more basic stewardship mandate. If this is where we locate “meaning” or “calling” in our work — paradoxically, not in our work, but in the specific call of Christ over our lives and relationships — our economic action is bound to bear fruit.

But there’s another path, too, wherein “following our passions” means precisely that: devolving into an isolated, individualistic pursuit of self-realization, embracing economic action as the idol of choice. If this is our framework for “calling” or “finding deeper meaning” in our work, emptiness and anxiety are sure to follow.

In a recent study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers Kira Schabram and Sally Maitlis aim to test some of those underlying attitudes and outcomes, minus the religious inputs and perspective.

By conducting individual interviews with 50 workers at various animal shelters across the country, Schabram and Maitlis discovered that each of the respondents fell into one of three basic approaches to “calling”: (1) an identity-oriented path, (2) a contribution-oriented path, or (3) a practice-oriented path.

For those in the first two categories, “burn-out” was the inevitable result. For workers on the “identity-oriented path,” their love of the job and the application of their personal gifts and skills were so heavily invested and applied by the workers that they would eventually lead to a “conflicted ricocheting” between successes and failures, or fluctuations between “the most heart-warming of tasks” and “the most heartbreaking of tasks.” For those on the “contribution-oriented path,” the problem was similar, with employees growing weary of obstacles to their contributions, or continuously frustrated by various constraints or a lack of organizational change. “Despite some success,” the professors write, such workers “ultimately felt burned out and defeated by the shelter inertia.”

Workers on the “practice-oriented path,” however, told a different story. “With more modest aspirations, they tended to respond to the challenges of animal welfare with less intense shock and negative emotion than did others,” they write. “…individuals on the practice-oriented path focused on learning the work of animal welfare, gradually increasing their mastery and impact and eventually creating roles with an extended reach into the community.” These workers still had “intense passion,” but didn’t approach their work out of specific quests or desires for self-fulfillment via “contribution,” nor did they allow it to consume their identity.

The study certainly has its limits and constraints, whether in sample size, the nature of the sample, or the basic metrics and vocabulary of “burn-out” vs. “endurance” (etc.). But again, for Christians who aim to go a layer deeper in these matters, the basic takeaway offers a lesson well worth digesting.

“In much of popular culture, the young are exhorted to seek out callings for the sake of self-realization, so as to realize what is special or unique about themselves,” Schabram explains. “Yet, when it comes to callings, less self seems to bring more realization.”

Which brings us back to a Gospel-centric vision of work, wherein we work in the service of neighbor and God, but we are also not striving and struggling after good works for the sake of good works or self-gratification. Although God has given us a calling, our identity is not bound up in our work or our economic successes or failures. When we contort our work as such, we reduce God’s gift to a mere idol, ceding it dominion and control, when it’s supposed to be the other way around.

As Tim Keller once said, “When you make your work your identity…if you’re successful it destroys you because it goes to your head. If you’re not successful it destroys you because it goes to your heart—it destroys your self-worth.”

On this, we’d do well to simply rest and remember that God has already designed our work to be filled with meaning. It’s not up to us to inject it with purpose.

“We are sometimes advised to try giving meaning to our work (instead of finding it there) by thinking of the job in religious terms such as calling or vocation,” writes Lester DeKoster in his book, Work: The Meaning of Our Lives. “What seems at first like a helpful perspective, however, deals with work as if from the outside. We find ourselves still trying to endow our own work with meaning. We are trying to find the content in the label, without real success. The meaning we seek has to be in work itself.”

We don’t begin with our own passions or dreams or goals for self-realization. We don’t begin, either, by begging God for “meaning” and “purpose” in our economic activity. Instead, we grab hold of what he’s already given us and step out in faith for the “above and beyond” that comes next.

Image: Unsplash, CC0 Public Domain

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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