Bloom, Colbert and Nielsen (2020). Stories of Calling: How Called Professionals Construct Narrative Identities


Matt Bloom – Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame
Amy Colbert – Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa
Jordan Nielsen – Krannert School of Management, Purdue University


Brittany Buis – Department of Managerial Studies, The University of Illinois at Chicago
Hannah Weisman – Department of Management, LSE

Article link:

1. Background. Both of us (Hannah and Brittany) do research on callings, but for those students and scholars who are less familiar with the research area, can you please briefly describe how you define a “calling” and differentiate it from other related constructs (e.g., intrinsic motivation, passion, work meaningfulness)? 

Matt Bloom (MB): Briefly, a calling is work in which a person experiences a deep connection between themselves and their work role. It certainly can comprise passion, and it often does so. Callings are deeply meaningful, and they are very intrinsically motivating, but a calling is more than this. It is work that a person somehow experiences as being connected to their “true selves.” But, this issue is very much in flux within the research literature. There may well be different kinds of callings, but finding the common thread is tricky. I think the common thread is some kind of intimate connection between self and work.

2. Findings. Your research sheds light on two “calling” narratives: a “discernment” narrative and an “exploration” narrative. Can you briefly describe the hallmarks of each narrative?

MB: Discerners feel their calling is their destiny, the work they are supposed to do. Explorers love their work because it allows them to express and live out their deepest values and beliefs. A major difference is that explorers do not think they have one calling, while discerners do, and that difference may matter a lot. For example, discerners may be more likely to fall from their call because they find it hard to reimagine their calling. Lots of great stuff to explore here.

Amy Colbert (AC): I think that it is important to note that both discerners and explorers had to live into their callings in order to deepen the connection between self and work. Over time, our participants were able to do their work in ways that reflected their true selves, but that were also validated by other members of the profession. 

3. Method. We notice that you adopted a “narrative inquiry approach” to collect and analyze the qualitative data for this project. How did you become familiar with this approach, and at what point in the research did you adopt it?

MB: I became very interested in narrative inquiry about eight years ago, and so oriented my qualitative research to capture people’s life stories. It took me a couple of years to learn about the method and gain enough competency to put it into practice. It has been well worth the effort.

Jordan Nielsen (JN): If I could add one thing here, I think a narrative inquiry approach is particularly suited to investigating calling. When someone says that they have a calling, it is a very strong claim and usually it requires some evidence to back-up that claim. A rich, coherent narrative seems to be a natural way of demonstrating to others (and yourself) that your claim is valid. So it was just a perfect fit for our research questions regarding calling.

4. Implications. One question you tackle in your research is, “How does someone find a calling?” If you got this question, for example, from an MBA student, how would you respond? What kind of advice would you give?

MB: I would offer two pieces of advice. First, make sure you have a great deal of clarity about your core life values and beliefs, and let those guide you toward your work. Choose work that will allow you to express those values and beliefs over prestigious or high paying work. Second, be prepared to sacrifice for your calling. You will likely make less money, and you will feel compelled to work more hours and give up some or most of your life outside of work. Callings can be so compelling that they swamp the rest of life, so work-life balance is very hard when you are called to your work. 

JN: I like Matt’s prescription here. I would add that, if we are talking about an MBA student asking this question, I think our research may suggest they are probably already living an exploration narrative. (My feeling is that discerners in our study never really felt the need to ask the “How do I find my calling” question because it was answered for them relatively early in life—or more precisely, their narratives interpreted their experiences in that way). This suggests that the MBA student should be prepared to possibly try out a few different roles to find something they really connect with emotionally (something they “love”). They may be surprised what it ends up being.

AC: I would add that finding a calling is only one piece of the puzzle. Even after you find work to which you believe you are called, the connection between self and work can deepen as you live into your role. Our participants talked about improving their skills and finding ways to bring their unique gifts to their work, and that deepened their sense of calling. Our study shows that it is important to choose work that allows you to express your values, but you may also be able to find ways to express your values in the work that you are doing.

5. Future Research. Previous research on narratives and narrative identity work (e.g., Ibarra & Barbulescu, 2010) suggests individuals continually revise their self-narratives to meet internal and external needs (e.g., for authenticity and social acceptance). Although you did not conduct longitudinal research, how do you think called professionals might revise their narratives over time?

MB: This is a topic of great interest to me, and one we are pursuing in some of our current research. We are, for example, studying how women who are called to their work revise their narratives in response to identity threats and harms. We are also studying how called professionals are responding to the pandemic, especially when their work is directly impacted by it. We expect to see a variety of responses: strengthening their called identity, adapting and repairing it, losing or falling from their call, and probably more.

JN: One of our reviewers brought up the idea that a narrative may shift from discernment to exploration or vice versa. I think this is an intriguing idea. For example, you can imagine a discerner who experiences some sort of shock (e.g., changes in institutional values, reduction of professional role due to technological change) that breaks them out of their “one true” calling and makes them change a bit. I think this would be fairly traumatic and may lead to a revised narrative that fits the exploration structure better.

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