Seminar helps MBA students clarify career certainty, calling as they step into business world

April 29, 2021
Contact: Jeff Karoub jkaroub@umich.edu

FACULTY Q&A

A recent seminar for University of Michigan MBA students found 30% were certain about their career path, while 70% expressed uncertainty and concern.

That’s understandable given financial investment and time commitments in their education, said Valerie Myers, a lecturer of management and organizations at U-M’s Ross School of Business and leader of the seminar.

Whether certain or not, those seminar participants also discovered “a broader quest to live their calling” as they enter the business world, said Myers, an organizational psychologist and U-M alumna. She said the seminar aimed to allay those concerns by, among other things, stressing the breadth of their calling, which she describes as “much more than passion and a fitting career.”

Myers has conducted research on calling for two decades and is the author of “Conversations About Calling: Advancing Management Perspectives.” She discusses the seminar, as well as what the students’ insights mean for her work, graduates and a wider audience.

Let’s talk first about calling. You note it isn’t merely passion or a fitting career, but what is it?

Think of it as “disposition, duty and destiny.” Based on my research of the original 16th century idea, a calling is the combination of all three. Disposition is character strengths and transcending self. Duty is a demonstrated commitment to serving the work. And destiny is sometimes a fitting career—but as we know, fate can intervene to change your destiny. Note the order: character, commitment and then career. That’s because the first two can be catalysts for identifying career goals and are vital for realizing them fully. They all work together.

Students took an assessment of their calling. A total of 25 points was possible for each dimension. They averaged 18 out of 25 on destiny, 19 of 25 for duty and 22 of 25 for disposition. Seeing how they compared to peers, helped to normalize uncertainty. No one scored 25 on destiny, which is typical for early-career. Simply seeing this data helped alleviate stress.

I developed a measure of calling that tested and validated this definition with a health care organization. The responses of administrators, clinicians and support staff confirmed my theory and highlighted why we’d be better off embracing the original, 16th century ideal. Here’s what I found:

  • Not surprisingly, clinicians (doctors and nurses) and some administrators were most likely to state that they felt their work was enjoyable and aligned with their interests—how people typically think of a calling.
  • Alignment and enjoyment doesn’t mean you’re approaching work with the character and commitment of a calling, or truly serving society. For example, one physician said that his work is aligned with his interests, energizing and satisfying, but he’s ambivalent about demonstrating the care and extra effort to serve the work. I call this a “specialist without spirit”—not in a religious sense but lacking a spirit that positively animates the work. This doctor highlights risks of career certainty as the narrow definition of a calling.
  • Conversely, 37% of people reported a sense of sacred responsibility or disposition for their work and that was indeed correlated with the diligence, care and persistence that managers hope to see. The problem is, that wasn’t necessarily correlated with a fitting career. For example, an older medical clerk and a young patient advocate both feel a sacred sense of responsibility for their work, go the extra mile and take care with mundane tasks—even though they don’t feel passionate about their careers or that it is aligned with their interests. Who would you rather have on payroll? The passionate but lackadaisical doc or the committed support staff?
  • Sadly, the annual Gallup poll found 61% of U.S. workers are disengaged at work and it costs companies millions—not to mention the impact on worker well-being. While leaders certainly must do a better job, on the worker side the broader, original calling would address this by cultivating specialists with spirit.

How do students tap into it, especially in a business world that seems to emphasize and reward professional advancement and all that comes with that?

I’ve facilitated seminars for young adults, graduate students and established adults for 20 years. The most recent seminar was in February, with a Christian MBA group. Before the event, I surveyed students about the topics they wanted to cover: 80% wanted to focus on pursuing your profession and discovering your gifts. Only 20-40% were interested in the true meaning of calling or related myths.

Too often, people in academia and with privilege think of calling as pursuing your dream job or career. But that’s a limited and detrimental view. During the pandemic, people who showed up, did their work well (health care workers), even when they didn’t feel like it and if it wasn’t their desired career (food delivery, mail, grocery clerks, food industry workers), were also living their calling. These are specialists with spirit! Research shows that there are personal psychological benefits for deploying these duty and dispositional aspects of a calling, as well as benefits for organizations and society.

What was your reaction to the high degree of students expressing uncertainty about their career path? While the survey is relatively new and there aren’t previous years to compare, would you say anecdotally that uncertainty is trending lower, higher or about the same as in years’ past? Any pandemic effect?

As an organizational psychologist, it’s not surprising to me—but it is very surprising and unsettling for some students. They’re in a highly competitive environment with many peers who display career certainty and a laser focus on goals. They’ve invested considerable time and money in education for a career path that some have discovered doesn’t suit them, and they’re mildly panicked.

Then there’s parental pressure. The level of uncertainty is rather typical, regardless of the pandemic. Probably half of people are highly attuned to their career interests at an early age, half are uncertain or open. But college admissions committees and hiring managers reward certainty, and so they learn to pretend and adapt. Given the rapid pace of change in our society, people who acknowledge uncertainty and learn to navigate it are the ones that will be rewarded.

During the seminar, we explore the true, historic meaning of calling—which is that all honorable work has dignity and sacred value, if we can find and embrace it. This broadens students’ perspectives, normalizes uncertainty and cautions highly focused strivers. We then engage in exercises that inspire and help them plan next steps.

We begin by dispelling myths about calling as mere passion and purpose to reveal how many people walk into fitting, meaningful careers without a clear plan and being laser focused—at least initially. How? By developing character strengths and commitments to serving the work they can discover a path, refine skills and cultivate or recalibrate relationships that advance their calling. This alone provides a sense of relief. Then we discuss the other two dimensions of a calling.

Those who attended the seminar received custom profiles. Of particular interest is “Duty-Serving the Work.” Can you explain what that means, where it trends and its overall importance?

Duty was once considered the hallmark of a calling—a willingness to do boring and mundane things with care, adhering to standards of excellence and going the extra mile. That was the Protestant work ethic: In a religious sense, it meant “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all of your might, working as unto the Lord and not for men.” Max Weber, the founder of management studies, asserted this ethic-fueled exponential economic expansion of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But their assessments showed average scores for duty (19 of 25)—much less than we’d hope for.

Apathy toward duty is the greatest risk for personal growth, professional excellence, organizational performance and the common good. And since MBAs are future leaders, I’ll share a troubling result from a recent study by Stanford researchers: They found that typical leaders are narcissistic and good at serving themselves but not the work. In fact, they produce worse financial returns and business performance but they’re great at conveying passion, confidence and producing short-term sensations.

You don’t need to have a clear career path to develop this aspect of your calling, just the will to motivate yourself to serve the work. To be fair to this group, and young people generally, digital technology is limiting our capacity for focused attention and careful work. Today’s young adults need to deliberately develop this aspect of their calling—not because they’re lazy but because their brains are involuntarily being rewired not to slow down, focus, do boring things and reflect. These are essential to fulfill one’s calling.

Finally, what stood out for you among the responses—what broader implications or benefits do you see for the graduates and the business world they enter?

This group scored highest on character strengths among all dimensions of calling—an average of 22 out of 25. I am heartened by their idealism. This suggests to me the future is in good hands. Some of these young people may be uncertain about their profession, but they are well educated, they’ve learned to work hard at U-M, and they’re inherently interested in transcending selfish ends. They want parents, leaders and institutions to do the same.

In these results, I hear the voices of activism that daily challenge corporations, politicians, managers and faculty to honor human rights, support democracy, preserve the environment, and enact social and economic reforms that serve the common good. They are the conscience or our nation and that should give us all hope. They are eager to answer their callings to become specialists with spirit!