Myths and Half-Truths About Calling - Bryan Dik

Do you work a job or do you live a calling? If your answer to the question is, "Huh, what?" Then this conversation is for you. Today we're going to talk about the common myths and half truths about calling. Our guest today is Dr. Bryan Dik. Bryan Dik is a vocational psychologist and professor of Psychology at Colorado State University, where he serves as Director of Training for the university's PhD program in counseling psychology. He is also co-founder and chief science officer of jobZology, and co-inventor of the award-winning PathwayU career assessment platform. Bryan's scholarly work focuses on meaning and purpose in the workplace, calling and vocation in career development, and the intersection of faith and work. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and American Scientific Affiliation, and is recipient of the John Holland Award for Outstanding Achievement in Career or Personality Research. His published books include "Redeeming Work" and "Making Your Job a Calling."

Scripture References

  • Exodus 3
  • Act 9:1-19

Additional Resources

Thanks for Listening!

If you like what you've heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts! We'd love to hear from you, and it helps other people find us.

< Back to Making It Work podcast episode list


Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

LA: Do you work a job or do you live a calling? If your answer to the question is, "Huh, what?" Then this conversation is for you. Today we're going to talk about the common myths and half truths about searching for, working and living a calling. Our guest today is Dr. Bryan Dik. Bryan Dik is a vocational psychologist and professor of Psychology at Colorado State University, where he serves as Director of Training for the university's PhD program in counseling psychology. He is also co-founder and chief science officer of jobZology, and co-inventor of the award-winning PathwayU career assessment platform. Bryan's scholarly work focuses on meaning and purpose in the workplace, calling and vocation in career development, and the intersection of faith and work. He is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and American Scientific Affiliation, and is recipient of the John Holland Award for Outstanding Achievement in Career or Personality Research. His published books include "Redeeming Work" and "Making Your Job a Calling." Bryan Dik, welcome to the Making It Work podcast.

Bryan Dik: Thanks so much for having me, it's an honor to be on your podcast.

LA: Well, I'm hoping we're gonna learn a lot about vocation and calling today, but let's start with the basics. As someone who studied vocational psychology and spirituality, how would you define a sense of calling? Basically, what is a calling?

BD: Well, it's not as straightforward a question as you might think. So at a risk of being a little bit...

LA: I don't think it is straightforward at all, actually, I think it's very complicated. Give us a place to start though.

BD: Yeah, okay. So, part of the complication is, the way I approach it, I kind of think about it on different levels. I'll give you a technical definition because, as a research psychologist, I spent my whole career studying this, and if you have to study it... If you study it, you have to define it clearly and then concoct a way to measure it and assess it in people. And when you're able to do that, then you can do research and invite others to do that. So the technical definition, I'm paraphrasing a bit here, but basically we talk about a calling as an approach to a particular life role. As a vocational psychologist, I always study it as it applies to work, but conceptually it's broader than that.

So, an approach to a particular life role characterized by three things. The first is a transcendent summons, that is the idea that a person engages this life role, their work in a way, that's a response to something beyond the self, doesn't come from within, it's a response to something beyond the self. The second factor is purposeful work, an alignment of purpose that you experience in your work hours to a broader sense of purpose in life. So transcendent summons, purposeful work, and the third is a prosocial orientation. And this is the idea that a person approaches work this way motivated by other-oriented not self-oriented goals, so a sense of contribution as opposed to personal happiness. The paradox being that the more focused we are on meeting the needs of other people, the happier we tend to be also. But anyway, so that's the more technical definition, those three things.

LA: I like having a technical definition. So give us... As a researcher, give us some hard numbers, Bryan.

BD: Well, that also is a little less straightforward than you might think, because the question, how many people have a calling, really depends on how you ask that question. If you just ask it point blank, "Do you think of your work as a calling?" Then about half of people say, "Yes", which is somewhat shocking, I would say. That's way higher.

LA: That just sounds pretty good to me.

BD: It sounds great, but it's a lot higher than what I expected. So, I expected it would be far less. Now, when you break it down, and think of it in a more gradated way, there's this small percentage of people, who kind of experience it fully, and then a much larger percentage of people, who can access elements of it.

LA: And which part of that definition is more difficult to come by?

BD: Well, the transcendent summons element of it, is kind of the most controversial among psychologists, maybe for reasons that are obvious. It sounds very spiritual. And I should have started by saying that the technical definition here, this allows us to study this on a psychological level. So, you can study something and explain something on a psychological level, that doesn't explain it away on other levels, like on a spiritual level, right? But the tools that we have as psychologists all focus on what's happening on a psychological level. So yeah, I think more people resonate with the idea of, my work provides me with purpose and meaning, and it gives me a way to contribute to the world, than who identify with that transcendent summons idea, that this is something that comes from beyond me.

MR: Yeah. Well, and especially because, the language of calling has been substantially co-opted away from the notion of a caller, right?

BD: That's right.

MR: Calling is kind of like you find your internal whatever. And so, of course, what you're doing also really works with Christian faith, but it requires some sense of transcendence to make it work.

BD: That's right, yeah. Yeah, as a Christian, I identify the caller as God, obviously. But from a purely psychological perspective, that is common, but it's not necessarily a requirement to meet the criteria. Yeah.

LA: And in the Bible, we have some very cut and dry literal examples of people hearing a transcendent summons, literally, like hearing a voice that comes from God, when you think of the calling of Moses or the calling of Samuel. But there are also a lot of people in the Bible, who are called to a particular work, who did not hear from God, a particular summons. I wonder if, Bryan, you could tell us a little bit about your experience? Either in your research or personally. How... Can you feel a transcendent summons without hearing a particular voice?

BD: Yes, you can. And so, the personal side of this... Because research is "me-search"...


BD: There's some ironies in my own path, but I'll say a lot of this originated with my own personal struggles, to figure out what God was calling me to do, vocationally. And so, I was one of these college sophomores, on my knees pleading with God to reveal His will for my career in a very clear, unmistakable way. As I think back, I don't know exactly what I was expecting. Moses and the burning bush, that's a great prototype, right? It's an amazing calling experience, I think partly it's notable, because it's not common, it's rare. Even in the pages of scripture, an audible voice providing direct instruction is not the typical way, at least as people think about what should I do next, with my life? Right? And so, I was praying for something like that. I don't think I actually expected an audible voice, but I did feel that I would have some kind of moment of awakening, or some kind of spiritual sense... I'd wake up one day and just have a clear idea, and that didn't ever really happen the way that I hoped it would.

And so the more you dig into, theologians describing what is a way to discern a calling if God doesn't usually use an audible voice. And the answer is callings are mediated through other things. And so the question is, then, what are those other things? And how can I use wisdom? Praying for guidance, but not praying in such a way where you then become passive which is what I defaulted into. Praying for this clear sense of direction, and then I just got really anxious and felt like I wasn't praying right or hard enough. Or it's the classic, "You just need more faith" kind of thing.

LA: I wonder, Mark, do you think this is a common misconception about calling that “I've just got to pray and wait for a bush to catch on fire?”

MR: Well, I think it's certainly true for some. And again, as you say, if you say, "Well, look what happened to Moses, look what happened to Paul, okay, I'm gonna wait for that." And that's not a foolish thing. That's an attempt to imitate those in scripture, we wanna imitate, but what it does is it takes a very unusual, God's unusual way of working with a few people and then it creates a norm that isn't true for all people, and then people really get stuck and frozen. I do think that often happens especially with younger Christians. But I think, as people become more mature in their faith, they realize that there are other ways that God speaks, in addition to the actual voice in the bush, which would be way cool. And I'm still way open to that. And I've certainly prayed for that in various times in my life. But mostly, Bryan, as you say, they're the mediators of different ways that I come to understand my calling.

BD: That's right. Yeah.

LA: You know what's interesting? When I think about Paul and I think about Moses, those are two men who were on their way to do different things. And they were really fundamentally interrupted by God who had to get their attention in a very stark way to change their path, versus you never hear about the calling of Barnabas. What was that like? It's like maybe he didn't need a big interrupter. He was already on the way. He looked around and saw the signs and talked to some of the other early Christians. And then he said, "Well, this seems like God, I'm gonna go in this direction." And he... It was, I don't know. Do you know anything about the calling of Barnabas, Mark?

MR: There was a time when God through prophetic voices spoke to those folk but there's no reason to believe that he had a road to Damascus experience. And Apollos if you think, Paul's other colleague who was more intellectual. I bet he thought a lot about it. And worked it out in a different way, though, and maybe we'll get to this. But Bryan, there are a number of things that people, as they're discerning and clarifying their calling, there are a number of things that people often do and wisely do. Even if God speaks to you, you still gotta... There's still a lot of work to be done with that calling.

BD: That's right.

MR: What does it all mean?

LA: All right. Let's get back to the practical. Bryan, what are those steps that people need to do when they're trying to discern their calling? You mentioned gifts before?

BD: Yeah, so I do wanna just circle back and say my problem as a 19-year-old was not with the praying, it was the praying and then being really passive and waiting and just only praying. And don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying God only helps those who help themselves either. But rather than praying and waiting I think a praying and being active approach is really optimal. And so yeah, gifts is a key way that I think our callings are mediated. So how are... How am I unique as an individual? How has God made me in terms of... I use that word gifts, by the way very broadly. So I don't only mean giftedness or talents, or skills. But speaking as a psychologist, it's like what do we know actually predicts good outcomes for folks. It's finding opportunities that align with our interests, the things that we're curious about, that we just can't stop thinking about, that we really enjoy. That has implications for where I'm going to find the most life-giving paths forward.

Things like values as well what do I need, in an occupation in a work environment in order to derive a sense of satisfaction from it? Some people need a lot of independence, and feel hemmed in and squashed if someone... If they're in an environment where someone's always looking over their shoulder. Other people need a lot of structure and feel like they're just swimming in ether when they don't have a set of guidelines to follow as they do their work. So these kinds of nuances, these are things that we can measure and help people understand and then use that information to predict some pathways that would really be good fits for folks that they would find life-giving and sustaining. So that's, one suggestion, is starting with gifts. And I guess I just... Let me finish this thought with this one. There's more to the story than this. But the other thing, I think that happens is that people approach this task in a vacuum often.

They feel almost embarrassed by it, they see other people... Peers who are really doing well and flourishing, and then they feel like, "Well, what's wrong with me?" And so they don't really involve other people to the extent that they could. And this is another thing that... There are examples in Scripture though, the role of leaning on mentors, and this is also something that we see in psychological science, people with better outcomes are ones that don't go it alone, who involve people not just for support, but also for guidance and to serve as role models. And of course, the church is modeled such that we're a community, and so leaning into that. So looking at gifts and then bringing in support from folks, I think doing those things on top of a prayerful attitude probably will bring you a lot of the way there to finding clarity. Yeah.

LA: So this is not something a question you can answer on your own with a Google search or even with a really good self-assessment, this is a process that you go through with other people who know you well, and hopefully people who know the job market well as well.

BD: That's right, and I will say there are a lot of resources and tools that are available to help. And so you mentioned self-assessment, and I would say there is no assessment that tells a person what they should do with their lives. And if any assessment claims to have that capacity, then run in the opposite direction. But having said that, some... Definitely not all, but some assessments do provide reliable and valid information that can help a person make informed choices, doesn't make their choice for them, but it's another source of information to consider. I think using wisdom is really important, and wisdom in decision-making, usually more information is better if it's the right kind of information. And so, informed choices are usually wise choices, and that ends up being really important as people go about discerning a calling. Yeah.

MR: I find this stuff so helpful and so about halfway into this conversation, so now here's the commercial. If you're liking what you're hearing from Bryan, but you're saying, "Man, this is going fast." His most... I think it's your most recent book, right? Redeeming Work is that it, has got this stuff in it. So I just would give a big thumbs up to your book and encourage folks if they're saying, "Oh, this sounds really interesting." Man, buy the book, because you lay things out in such a helpful way.

BD: Thank you, Mark.

MR: That's alright.

LA: And better than a 30-minute podcast, we're not gonna give you your life's calling in a 30-minute podcast, you need maybe a little bit more thinking.

MR: Oh no I thought we were promised, I had that as a promise.

BD: I guess you can wait to see what listeners say. Maybe someone will prove us wrong.

LA: Oh gosh, Bryan, I wanted to ask you, was there a moment in your life where you had other people speak back to you, some insight about your own calling or that helped you see the idea of calling in a different way?

BD: Well, that's a good question, and I would say yes many times, but part of that is, I think I recognize I'm not great at doing these things by myself, and so it's just sort of part of my practice to involve people in the decision-making process. And so this is another thing like worth doing, if you're listener, and you're struggling with these things, right? When you begin to form ideas about what might be possible, it's helpful to kind of project yourself into the future. Kinda try them out. And talk it through with someone. I talk about putting together a personal board of directors, like companies have boards of directors. Well, imagine putting together your own Board of Directors, people who are in your corner, who are wise, who are mentor types, who can give you candid appraisals of things, and who don't have an agenda, other than being helpful to you. So you find people like this and then you say, "Hey, here's some things I'm wrestling with, and here's a possible path forward for me. Let me talk it through and you can tell me what you think." So if you get in the habit of doing this then...

And I will say definitely more than one person, because you get people who you know in different environments, and then you'll get their feedback and you'll find points of convergence. And those, I think are really valuable. Right? And so, yeah, this is kind of a lifestyle thing for me, I do this often, and even now. This is an ongoing process, it's discerning and living a calling. We do some self-assessment. We think about our own gifts and abilities and the way that those translate, but you have to test that by seeing what other people observe as well.

LA: So are you saying that calling isn't a one and done type of thing? Because that feels like a bummer. I just wanna have the decision behind me, and feel like I've already discerned it and now I'm good. I don't have to figure anything out for the rest of my life, and you're giving me some hard news here.


BD: So, in my research lab, we designed a couple of scales to measure the search for a calling and the presence of calling. So to what extent are people looking for a calling and to what extent do people experience it? And we assumed that scores on these two scales would be negatively correlated, meaning to say that the people who are looking for a calling are the people who don't sense that they have one currently. And once a person get some clarity and feels like they've discerned a calling, then they're not really looking for it so much. But much to our initial dismay, we found that those scores were not negatively correlated. They were positively correlated at a very high level. And then we realized that really, part of, by definition, having a sense of calling means you're constantly engaged in this process of evaluating, "How can I do this better? How can I do this more? What are some other opportunities that would allow me to be more effective or to expand my sphere of influence or whatever?"

So yeah, I think a sense of calling is it's not a thing to be discovered after which you ride off into the sunset and live a blissful life. I wish that were the case. Instead, it's an ongoing process. It's a lifestyle.

MR: Yeah, you know who else wished that were the case? [chuckle] Was Moses. Because, you think about the call of Moses, we use that as sort of the paradigm of the supernatural call, pretty much all God said is you gotta lead the people out of Egypt. [laughter] Then there was a little more to be done, right?


BD: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

MR: And so he had a life of discernment. And even some of the things you've just said where he's out there and he's got... He's overwhelmed with the workload and his father-in-law comes and says, "Hey, you gotta get some help here." So there's mentoring. You could go through all of that. So even if you had the most amazing call experience ever, which Moses would be arguably that, he was working out what that call meant until he died.

BD: That's right. That's right. That's a great example.

MR: Yeah, I love that. But I also think the way you talk about this is really important, because we can... In certain Christian circles anyway, they talk about calling as sort of, "I am called to the pastoral ministry. And then that's just it. That's my... " And any even divergence from that is often seen as failure or disobedience rather than seeing calling in a much more constructive and a fluid way.

BD: That's right. And that's partly why, my first book with Ryan Duffy, we called it Make Your Job a Calling rather than discover the job that is your calling. Just to sort of emphasize that there's a proactivity to living this stuff out, especially in the current world of work. Even pre-pandemic, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that the average American adult had held 12 jobs by the time they're 50 years old, and I don't think that's because they got it wrong 11 times and then finally found... Instead, callings evolve and they also transcend job titles. So I'm blessed to have opportunities to give workshops around this, and one of the things I love to do is ask people in the room, "How many of you feel like your work is a calling?" And hands will go up. I do this a lot at colleges. So then I'll... Just like faculty. And so then I'll ask them, "What is your calling? If I were to ask you to describe it, how would you do that?" Almost none of them say it's to be a biology professor or whatever. Instead, it's to help young people think critically or to contribute to generating new knowledge, and it's these kinds of broader things. And I think that that is actually very freeing for people when they recognize that, because it means there are many ways, many pathways in terms of job titles that you could pursue and still be faithful to that broader sense of calling.

LA: I think this is another myth of calling. We talked at the beginning of the podcast about we're gonna call out some of the myths around calling today. And I think the myth is that calling is really a job description. Once you find the right job description for you, you're done.

MR: Yeah. So can we talk... I think folks would be really interested in some of your half truths.

BD: Yeah.

MR: Which is not my criticism of you. You call them... I'm asking you to talk about the things you call half truths.


BD: Sure. Well, one that kinda stems directly from what we were just talking about is this concern that many Christians have when they're thinking about a sense of calling and discerning, one that they might if they're not careful, they'll miss it. And so the whole thing about needing to get it right, there's one calling out there for me. And then if I don't get it right, then I'm gonna be doomed to a life of living outside of the center of God's will.

And so there is something to be said. Obviously, we want to discern what God's will is for our lives and we want to be able to live out, express our gifts in the world in a way that brings him glory and makes the world better. But the idea of there being one job title that is the right one for me. It reminds me of the concept of the soulmate that people have in romantic relationships. There's one person out there in the universe for me, probably another person at my university or, another person who rides the subway with me or whatever. And if I miss that person, then I'm gonna be doomed to a life of loneliness. Well, I don't know that that's how relationships work, and it's not how jobs work either. And so part of it is recognizing that there are multiple ways to get it right for most people in terms of job titles, that what we do right now is likely to change and maybe setting our sights on the bigger picture.

A sense of calling that transcends any particular job title really is helpful and freeing, and allows people to realize that, "Hey, I feel a sense of calling to provide healing to the world, but I failed organic chemistry and there's no way I'm gonna get into med school. I guess I might as well, quit and drop out." Well, no, I mean, if you have this heart for providing healing, there are many other ways to do that, besides having the letters MD at the end of your name. And it's just a matter of figuring out what are the other options and what are the other pathways that are accessible to me? How can I live out my calling in one of those?

LA: I've certainly said thank you to the person managing the 24 hour CVS. When I had to [laughter] come in at 2:00 in the morning for Benadryl because someone's having an allergic reaction and they're like, "Are you having a good night?" And I'm like, "It's 2:00 in the morning and I'm getting Benadryl." But I was like, "Thank you that you are here for me providing healing."

BD: That's right.

LA: Okay. I love it. Help us bust another myth.

BD: Well, I think a starting point for some Christians and maybe these are... I don't know, younger, not as mature in their faith, but there often is kind of a starting point belief that if I'm really serious about my faith, I should consider ministry or missions before anything else. And it's a half truth because we do need good ministers and missionaries, but it's not a whole truth because for one thing, it sort of implies, or embedded in that half-truth is the idea that the only really serious Christians are ministers and missionaries, and of course, if you look at your experience, you know that there are serious God-fearing believers living out their faith in all spheres.

But the other part of it, it kinda circles back to something we were talking about earlier, it kind of ignores the roles of gifts. If you're someone who has gifts that make you well equipped to serve in a ministry or missionary role, then absolutely that something you should definitely consider, but if you have a different set of gifts, then it's very plausible that God might be calling you in a different direction. And so giving up that idea that, "If I'm really serious about my faith, then I should be considering these." Instead, look in a much broader way, the way scripture does, that Christ is Lord of every square inch of creation, not just of formal ministry roles, then that helps.

LA: And certainly not just of either formal ministry or traveling missionary roles.

BD: Yeah, and of course, we affirm that there is lots of value in... It's like a response to the great commission and taking the gospel to all ends, every corner of the earth. But yet we're also called to serve where we are, and it doesn't make you kind of a higher level Christian if you're willing to serve overseas.

LA: So Bryan, as the last question, for people who do have that question mark about calling, where do I even go from now? If you imagine you in your college student days when you couldn't nail down a major and were just underneath, praying for a burning bush. What would you give someone as a first step in addition to reading your book, which we think everyone should do because you can't get all of it in this short conversation, but what would you give someone as a first step?

BD: Well, I think I would affirm prayer as a first step and just kind of having a stance of listening, you know? Kind of orienting to God in a way where you're open for the promptings of the Spirit. But instead of... I would also provide a little bit of correction to someone who feels that if they're praying over this matter and then not getting the answer that they desperately desire, then they just need to pray harder or be more patient. And instead I would say, you know, maintain that posture of openness and prayer, but then have some wisdom and engage in some action to do some things to pay attention to the ways that God mediates those callings to us, right?

So part of that is, don't go it alone, seek support from people who have your back and who can provide some good guidance and mentoring to you, but then also attend to your gifts. How did God make you? How are you unique? Different from other people. And what are the implications of that for where within the kingdom you're well equipped to serve? Not just in terms of your talents, although that's an important part of it, but also in terms of what animates you, what brings you joy, what you really just are curious about, wanna learn more, feel really excited and motivated when you engage in that thing? And whether that's business or social work or art or whatever it is, you know? I think our work sort of honoring the way God made us ends up being a really helpful way to figure out the path that maybe where we would be wise to pursue on this earth.

LA: Bryan Dik, thank you so much for sharing your calling with us...

BD: Yes. Thank you.

LA: Today on the podcast.

BD: Thanks for having me, I enjoyed it, it was fun.

< Back to Making It Work podcast episode list