Interview with Valerie Myers: Conversations about Calling
Valerie Myers is a dynamic scholar, speaker, and author of the “Conversations About Calling.” She is a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the President and CEO of Myers Management Consulting, LLC. She is a pioneer on the topic of the meaning of work as a calling. Her calling is to elevate the character, climate, and quality of work. I interviewed Valerie to share her insights on calling and meaning of work.
Paul: Why should I care about calling at all? Isn’t this reserved for people who are in vocational ministry?
Valerie: The revolutionary idea of calling espoused by Protestant Reformers 500 years ago invited everyone to think of their ordinary activities as a calling. It was a sacred calling to do ‘good work.’ Moreover, I show in my book that, even though calling is a historically Christian concept, it is applicable across faith traditions. Therefore, it is very inclusive and can apply to any life role including leisure pursuits, family obligations, career, job and civic engagement. This notion of calling makes it clear how “all things can work together for the good of them that love the Lord and are called according to His purposes.”
Paul: What are some distorted beliefs around calling?
Valerie: First and foremost, the biggest misconception is that calling is primarily about passion. Second, that it is largely focused on individuals.
The most misunderstood and distorted notion of calling is that it is focused on personal passion and destiny, which is a result of Western cultural influences. While passion and destiny may be elements of a calling, at some point in time, they are not the main focus. Many have unquestioningly accepted this revised meaning of calling without understanding reasons for their belief. I explore reasons for the shift in my book, the consequences for organizations and society, and what we can do to fortify calling in our daily lives.
Why is this focus a problem? Weber warned that if calling drifted in this direction, toward individual passions and away from the highest religious and cultural values, it would have a corrosive effect on business and society. Why? Because people would become specialists without spirit.
Think about cyclist Lance Armstrong and Ken Lay of Enron, who became successful and made a lot of money following their passions and sense of destiny. But they did so without regard for rules and standards in their respective industries, the law, ethics or negative social consequences. They undermined rather than elevated cycling and the energy industry. That is not a calling! Their lives highlight the danger of the passion/destiny focused calling — which turns our attentions inward, whereas the classic definition of calling turns our attentions outward and upward – toward society, the quality of our work, and the transcendent.
A calling means being a specialist with spirit, in the classical sense – this is what’s missing in management literature and from some Christian literature.
On one hand, a specialist has fitting or desired work. On the other, even when it is not fitting work, a specialist focuses their attention and energies to do their best work! A calling means being a specialist in both regards. Also, not just any spirit will do, the spirit of a calling is cultivated – which often occurs in religious organizations but may also occur in community and other social organizations.
Specialists with spirit have obvious benefits for organizations. Foremost, they can reduce the burden on Human Resource departments who seek to socialize and reward employees, hoping that they will adhere to professional and corporate norms. Specialists with spirit have the ultimate source of motivation and personal conduct, which is not limited to workers, it includes managers too!
Paul: What motivated you to write your latest book on “Conversations about Calling”?
Valerie: I am committed to elevating the character, climate, and quality of work. Two things motivated me. First, years ago, I began studying the biblical story of Joseph. Was I passionate about it? Not really, just intrigued and open to exploring. But that’s sometimes how a calling unfolds. With each step we take, planned or unplanned, we are invited into a deeper commitment or relationship and rewarded with rich experiences, insights and connections that advance us further in our callings. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be setbacks and surprising turns along the way. The more I studied Joseph’s life, the more curious I became. That curiosity was sparked at a time that I was contemplating graduate school. However, my professors were not particularly supportive of me pursuing this line of inquiry. I could not have predicted 20 years ago, that my Bible study, commitment to learning and persistence in graduate school would ultimately lead to the book that I’ve written.
The second influence was the spirituality at work movement, while I was a manager and doctoral student. What I learned about calling from management scholarship didn’t coincide with what I understood intuitively, so I went searching for a theory. Furthermore, I was concerned about the coarsening business culture – having worked for a multi-national corporation in the automotive industry. I really wanted to positively influence business culture. Now, through my consulting firm, that is what I seek to do
Paul: How does understanding your calling impact your work and life?
Valerie: In short, it should make both richer and more meaningful. Why? A calling provides transcendent motivation for all that we do, particularly when we don’t feel like it. From a Christian perspective, it strengthens our patience and endurance for worthy causes. It gives us a reason to persevere, when appropriate, despite difficult circumstances. Instead of indulging our passions, it challenges our commitments to personal growth, the tasks before us, and the kind of contributions that we’ll make to society.
Growth, good work and benefitting others are their own reward – the joy of the fruit of our labor. “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor — it is the gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13) A calling encourages us to be mindful, instead of mindlessly accepting the status quo, following the group, or adhering to social expectations. It is a calling to adhere to the highest standards of what we are doing, and for some those standards are set by their religious faith.
Impact: the impact that you have depends upon the resources, allies and mentors, leadership and the context in which you work. That is why a calling is not merely an individual affair – it is somewhat reliant on others and it impacts others. If people are supportive, the context enables performance, and the organization creates goods and services that add value to society, then a calling is enriching all around. Even under the best of conditions, a calling provides and requires develop coping skills and soul-crafting or inner resources to persist. However, absent those conditions, a calling can be emotionally devastating. Delayed callings, denied callings and undermined callings are real possibilities. Hence, it is incumbent upon leaders to create conditions that foster rather than frustrate workers callings and manages their own calling, which I explain in workshops and retreats.
Paul: What are some practical steps an emerging leader can do to cultivate his/her calling?
Valerie: Find time to be quiet. We are so oriented toward hyper-connectivity and multi-tasking that it threatens the development of a calling. We need to listen to our own thoughts and feelings, and believers need to listen to God.
Reflect. What is sacred to you? What is sacred to your organization? Is there alignment between the two? What are you sacrificing for what your organization holds sacred?
Use the framework in my book to contemplate which dimensions of your calling require more attention and development. If you are inordinately focused on passion, destiny and winning, consider and assess the next steps that you need to take to strengthen and elevate your calling.
Valerie L. Myers, Ph.D. is a dynamic scholar, speaker and author of “Conversations About Calling: Advancing Management Perspectives” (Routledge Press). Valerie is a highly rated management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and the President and CEO of Myers Management Consulting, LLC. Her areas of expertise include motivation and the meaning of work as a calling; diversity management through positive relationships; and healthcare management. Through her research and practice, Myers is committed to elevating the character, climate and quality of work! To learn more visit www.conversationsaboutcalling.com and www.valeriemyers.org.