“Find Your Calling” is Terrible Advice
There’s a great Pete Holmes joke that goes, “There was a time that if you didn’t know where Tom Petty was from, you just didn’t know.”
He’s right. That time was about 20 years ago. I remember those days, but my youngest sibling doesn’t. The other week I explained to my fiancé what dial-up-internet is, and she was only born a year after I was. It’s no wonder that my grandparents never bothered to learn how to use smartphones. They watched technology improve so quickly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that they probably assumed that a few years after the iPhone came out, someone would invent glasses with a computer in them, Spy Kids style. And guess what? They were right.
We now live in a time where the concept of not knowing something doesn’t really make sense. Have a question about literally anything? Spend 30 seconds on your phone and you can likely find the answer. There are experts at anything, everywhere you look. In the midst of this, we’ve all been told by parents, teachers, coaches, YouTubers, graduation speakers, and self-help authors that we should find our “calling in life.” Considering that curiosity and wonder have been effectively replaced by instantaneous access to virtually all information, I’ve started wondering how exactly we are supposed to do that.
When I was in high school, I took one of those career-match tests. After answering 50 questions about my interests and abilities, the test told me I was a 100% match for a career as a chimney sweep. Nevermind the fact that this test matched me with a job that was rendered obsolete with the invention of the electric fireplace, it also gave me 25 other career results that were at least an 80% match. The test also recommended dozens of different skills, experiences, and college degrees that I should pursue in order to turn one of these results into my career. In the eyes of my high school guidance counselor, this test probably seemed highly useful. In my experience, being told at 16 that I might make a pretty good teacher, youth pastor, mechanic, politician, dentist, and chimney sweep — but to only choose one of the above — was paralyzing.
In the age of instant access to all information, how are any of us supposed to “find our calling” in the first place?
It’s obvious that students today struggle with this. 1 in 3 college students change their major at least once, resulting in only 41% of undergraduates graduating in 4 years. It’s not hard to understand why. 30 years ago, students might read a few flyers, talk with their parents and friends, consult an guidance counselor about what they want to do after college, and make a decision. Today, students receive input from TikTok influencers, strangers on online forums like Reddit, professionals on sites like LinkedIn, as well as friends, family, and teachers about what their calling might be.
In his book Born a Crime, Trevor Noah said, “You can only dream of what you can imagine,” and today’s students have the technology available to imagine hundreds of different callings at once. How can we expect teenagers to sift through all of the noise, choose something, and believe it’s their one true calling?
I work with college students for a living, and I’m not terribly concerned with whether my students find their career calling during their undergraduate years. Call that a hot take, but I am aware that they have been hardwired to worry about those things since they were kids. Whether or not they discover a career trajectory by 22 years old, I am confident they will find career satisfaction. In fact, Gallup data suggests that 88% of college graduates are satisfied with their jobs. This number may seem surprisingly high - but should it actually surprise us?
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow, he explains that our jobs have built in goals, challenges, rules, and feedback. Each of these factors encourage us to concentrate, build skills, and grow. As a result, we tend to enjoy our jobs. On the other hand, our free time is unstructured, and requires much more effort to build into something that can be enjoyed (beyond simply relaxing). For these reasons, Csikszentmihalyi's research suggests that people are happier at work than they think, and less happy relaxing than they expect. This is exactly why I don't stress about helping my students find their career calling. I’m more concerned with equipping them with skills to use their free time purposefully once they graduate, rather than defaulting to free time choices that lead to apathy and dissatisfaction.
There is enough content on Netflix, YouTube, and social media to consume all of my students’ free time without giving them time to stop and think about whether they really signed up to have all of their time sucked up by these platforms. It seems that the more my students spend defaulting to this content in their free time, the more aimless they report their free time feeling. The bigger problem is that no one is teaching them how to deal with that issue because the assumption is that they need to worry about getting “a good job” and everything else will work itself out.
I’ve seen student after student land great jobs and report that they still aren’t happy. To me, that is a pretty clear indication that “find your calling” is terrible advice.
Instead of spending 100% of my time trying to help students find their career calling, I believe I owe it to them to help them think about what it looks like to create a successful life outside of their careers. I’m convinced that training students to develop healthy and productive free time habits is equally as important as training them for successful careers. Ultimately, when we lack meaningful pursuits in our free time, we spend our time outside of work feeling indecisive, unproductive, and purposeless. That’s not a recipe for showing up to work full of energy and motivation, regardless of whether you’ve found your passion or not.
If these ideas made you stop and think about how you might add some purpose to your free time, I encourage you to consider my 3 Rules for eliminating aimlessness in your free time.
I was inspired for this article by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book Flow, Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Adam Grant’s “Work Life” podcast.