The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” A century and a half later, in the 1550’s, “calling” acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”
Put calling and vocation together, and you’ve got an appealing notion: that you would be summoned by name to a specific occupation as a matter of divine destiny: “Here, do this, it’s what you were born to do.”
What do you suppose are the odds? First, how many workers are there? The world today has about 7.7 billion people. A couple years ago, when there were about 7.2 billion, this comment string on Quora said that about 5.0 billion around the world had jobs.
Okay, that’s total jobs, but what about different jobs? Recruitor.com says there are 40,000 careers. Careerplanner.com puts the number at 12,000. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks 820+ occupations. Trade-schools.net zeroed in on 31 jobs in 2019 that fit “almost every type of person.” Flexjobs.com says there are 13 most common flex-work jobs. Thejobnetwork.com listed ten most popular jobs for 2018. Business Insider listed seven hot jobs for 2018 and 2019. And on it goes.
That’s not particularly helpful, so let’s just play with some numbers. Suppose those 40,000 different jobs were distributed among 5.0 billion workers. If every job is a called vocation, then each position represents 0.000008 of the total — eight in a million. That isn’t the same as the odds of it happening, but the chances seem pretty low, which we know from experience anyway.
No wonder Chaucer didn’t like the Summoner.[i]
Yet, despite the odds, we still hold onto the idea:
“Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?”
The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
“[O]ne third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling.” Does that seem high to anyone else? Does that mean that “the rest [who] will not find meaning and purpose in their careers” should give up the dream and follow advice like the following?
It is much easier to suppress a first desire than to satisfy those that follow. Benjamin Franklin
Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire. Epictetus
The power of unfulfilled desires is the root of all man’s slavery. Paramahansa Yogananda
- There’s a difference between a harmonious and obsessive calling. The former gives you vitality, better work performance, flow, and positive mood. The latter is also energizing, but leads to anxiety and burnout.
- As the quote above said, it’s better not to have a calling than to have one and let it go unanswered.
- The work you already do might become a calling if you invest enough in it. But that doesn’t mean you should just Grit it out — so says U of Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who wrote the book on the topic. Don’t sit and wait for revelation, she says, instead get out and take on some new challenges, and besides, you might find your source of energy and determination elsewhere than in your job.
For more help, this Forbes article provides a daunting list of twelve things it takes to have a calling and not just a job. The writer also says this:
“Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis … about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:
‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’
‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’”
Ah… now I think we might be onto something. We’ll explore Lewis’s ideas further next time.
[i] A SUMMONER was there with us in that place/ That had a fire-red cherubinnè’s face/ For saucèfleme he was with eyen narrow/ And hot he was and lecherous as a sparrow./ With scal èd browès black, and pilèd beard,/ Of his viság è children were afeared./ There n’as quicksilver, litharge nor brimstone,/ was no Boras, ceruse, nor oil of tartar none,/ Nor ointèment that wouldè cleanse and bite/ That him might helpèn of his whelkès white,/ Nor of the knobbès sitting on his cheeks./ Well loved he garlic, onion and eke leeks. / And for to drinkèn strong wine red as blood;/ Then would he speak and cry as he were wood.