Work as a Personal Calling

Bunderson, J. S., & Thompson, J. A. (2009). The call of the wild: Zookeepers, callings, and the double-edged sword of deeply meaningful work. Administrative Science Quarterly, 54, 32-57.

Abstract (from article):

A qualitative examination of work meaning in the zoo- keeping profession pointed to the centrality of the notion of work as a personal calling.The view of calling expressed by zookeepers, however, was closer in basic structure to the classical conceptualization of the Protestant reformers than it was to more recent formulations. We used qualitative data from interviews with U.S. zookeepers to develop hypotheses about the implications of this neoclassical conceptualization of calling for the relationship between individuals and their work. We found that a neoclassical calling is both binding and ennobling. On one hand, zookeepers with a sense of calling strongly identified with and found broader meaning and significance in their work and occupation. On the other hand, they were more likely to see their work as a moral duty, to sacrifice pay, personal time, and comfort for their work, and to hold their zoo to a higher standard. Results of a survey of zookeepers from 157 different zoos in the U.S. and Canada supported the hypotheses from our emergent theory.These results reveal the ways in which deeply meaningful work can become a double-edged sword.

Unless I were looking at it from a religious or spiritual perspective, I wouldn't have immediately thought of zookeeping as a "calling," but as the article notes, any career or job can be seen as a calling as long as the individual's primary purpose in work is oriented toward a cause or ideology, as opposed to working simply to pay the bills. In this regard, looking at zookeepers is a nice test case as much of the work of taking care of animals involves cleaning up after them, a not particularly appealing job.

As Bunderson and Thompson note, having a sense of calling can give life meaning and purpose as well as leading to personal sacrifice. Here are some quotations from zookeepers:

It’s a calling for me just because my whole life I’ve just been interested in animals. So looking back I should have known at some time I would be working with animals.

It’s a part of who I am and I don’t know if I can explain that. When you use that expression “it’s in your blood,” like football coaches and players can never retire because it’s in their blood. Whatever my genetic makeup is, I’m geared towards animals.

I was always interested in animals ever since I was a kid. I drove my mom nuts catching bugs and worms and frogs and salamanders, bringing home anything I could find . . . butterflies, stuff like that.

I slept and ate and read reptiles when I was a little boy. I thought that’s all there was. . . . Most boys my age, all they thought about was girls. Well, I thought about girls and reptiles.

I just always had every pet you could imagine—dogs, cats, ham- sters, gerbils, birds, reptiles of different sorts. I’ve always had an interest in animals and I said the zoo would be a good place to work.

A sense of calling is often associated with teaching, that teaching is more than just punching the clock: in at 8 and out at 5 (or earlier). Teaching involves working with others, helping students learn and prepare for their careers. It involves relationships of trust and respect (see What Works in Teaching).

I wonder how many people, teachers or others, have a sense of calling as strong as the zookeepers.