Psychology’s five revelations for finding your true calling
Look. You can’t plan out your life. What you have to do is first discover your passion – what you really care about.
If, like many, you are searching for your calling in life – perhaps you are still unsure which profession aligns with what you most care about – here are five recent research findings worth taking into consideration.
First, there’s a difference between having a harmonious passion and an obsessive passion. If you can find a career path or occupational goal that fires you up, you are more likely to succeed and find happiness through your work – that much we know from the deep research literature. But beware – since a seminal paper published in 2003 by the Canadian psychologist Robert Vallerand and colleagues, researchers have made an important distinction between having a harmonious passion and an obsessive one. If you feel that your passion or calling is out of control, and that your mood and self-esteem depend on it, then this is the obsessive variety, and such passions, while they are energising, are also associated with negative outcomes such as burnout and anxiety. In contrast, if your passion feels in control, reflects qualities that you like about yourself, and complements other important activities in your life, then this is the harmonious version, which is associated with positive outcomes, such as vitality, better work performance, experiencing flow, and positive mood.
Secondly, having an unanswered calling in life is worse than having no calling at all. If you already have a burning ambition or purpose, do not leave it to languish. A few years ago, researchers at the University of South Florida surveyed hundreds of people and grouped them according to whether they felt like they had no calling in life, that they had a calling they’d answered, or they had a calling but had never done anything about it. In terms of their work engagement, career commitment, life satisfaction, health and stress, the stand-out finding was that the participants who had a calling they hadn’t answered scored the worst across all these measures. The researchers said that this puts a different spin on the presumed benefits of having a calling in life. They concluded: ‘having a calling is only a benefit if it is met, but can be a detriment when it is not as compared to having no calling at all’.
The third finding to bear in mind is that, without passion, grit is ‘merely a grind’. The idea that ‘grit’ is vital for career success was advanced by the psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, who argued that highly successful, ‘gritty’ people have impressive persistence. ‘To be gritty,’ Duckworth writes in her 2016 book on the subject, ‘is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.’ Many studies certainly show that being more conscientious – more self-disciplined and industrious – is associated with more career success. But is that all that being gritty means? Duckworth has always emphasised that it has another vital component that brings us back to passion again – alongside persistence, she says that gritty people also have an ‘ultimate concern’ (another way of describing having a passion or calling).
However, according to a paper published last year, the standard measure of grit has failed to assess passion (or more specifically, ‘passion attainment’) – and Jon Jachimowicz at Columbia Business School in New York and colleagues believe this could explain why the research on grit has been so inconsistent (leading to claims that it is an overhyped concept and simply conscientiousness repackaged). Jachimowicz’s team found that when they explicitly measured passion attainment (how much people feel they have adequate passion for their work) and combined this with a measure of perseverance (a consistency of interests and the ability to overcome setbacks), then the two together did predict superior performance among tech-company employees and university students. ‘Our findings suggest that perseverance without passion attainment is mere drudgery, but perseverance with passion attainment propels individuals forward,’ they said.