Skip to Main Content

Business as a Calling

About The Book

Why do we work so hard at our jobs, day after day? Why is a job well done important to us? We know there is more to a career than money and prestige, but what exactly do we mean by "fulfillment"? These are old but important questions. They belong with some newly discovered ones: Why are people in business more religious than the population as a whole? What do people of business know, and what do they do, that anchors their faith? In this ground-breaking and inspiring book, Michael Novak ties together these crucial questions by explaining the meaning of work as a vocation. Work should be more than just a job -- it should be a calling.
This book explains an important part of our lives in a new way, and readers will instantly recognize themselves in its pages. A larger proportion than ever before of the world's Christians, Jews, and other peoples of faith are spending their working lives in business. Business is a profession worthy of a person's highest ideals and aspirations, fraught with moral possibilities both of great good and of great evil. Novak takes on agonizing problems, such as downsizing, the tradeoffs that must sometimes be faced between profits and human rights, and the pitfalls of philanthropy. He also examines the daily questions of how an honest day's work contributes to the good of many people, both close at hand and far away. Our work connects us with one another. It also makes possible the universal advance out of poverty, and it is an essential prerequisite of democracy and the institutions of civil society.
This book is a spiritual feast, for everyone who wants to examine how to make a life through making a living.


Chapter 1


Vocation (Lat. vocatio, a calling): the function or career toward which one believes himself to be called.

New World Dictionary, 2d college ed.

The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling....And in truth this peculiar idea, so familiar to us today, but in reality so little a matter of course, of one's duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalist culture, and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it...Now it is unmistakable that even in the German word Beruf, and perhaps still more clearly in the English calling, a religious conception, that of a task set by God, is at least suggested.

Max Weber

There is something about business no one may have told you in business school or economics class. Something important.

Maybe more important than anything else in your life, except your marriage and your children.

It is the answer to this question: During their busy lives, what gives people in business their greatest pleasure, and what at the end of their lives gives them their greatest satisfaction?

Whatever it is, don't we often call this "fulfillment"? But fulfillment of what? Not exactly a standing order that we placed ourselves. We didn't give ourselves the personalities, talents, or longings we were born with. When we fulfill these -- these gifts from beyond ourselves -- it is like fulfilling something we were meant to do. It is a sense of having uncovered our personal destiny, a sense of having been able to contribute something worthwhile to the common public life, something that would not have been there without us -- and, more than that, something that we were good at and something we enjoyed.

Even if we do not always think of it that way, each of us was given a calling -- by fate, by chance, by destiny, by God. Those who are lucky have found it.


But what exactly is a calling -- or (for those who insist) an identity? How would we know one if we saw it? What do you look for, if you wish to find your own?

One good way is to mull over examples from the lives of others. First, though, we need to understand that in our culture (vast and many-faceted as it is), we expect each calling (each personal identity) to be unique. No two people have exactly the same calling. That is why we need to mull over many examples if we are trying to apply them to ourselves. None will ever quite fit; some may suggest useful clues, and some may leave us cold.

Here are several stories of callings I've encountered over the years, including one about myself. Limited pretty much to the field of business, they should give a larger sense of what it means to heed a calling.

* M. Scott Peck, M.D., the famous author, tells the story of a young enlisted man in Okinawa who served under him as a practicing therapist. Peter was unusually good at his assignment, and Dr. Peck tried to get him to enter graduate school on his return to the United States. "You're a fine therapist. I could help you get into a good master's program. Your GI Bill would pay for it."

The young soldier said he wanted to start a business. Dr. Peck admits to being "aghast."

As Dr. Peck began reciting the advantages of a career in psychotherapy, he was stopped cold by the young enlisted man: "Look, Scotty, can't you get it in your head that not everyone is like you?" Not every one wants to be a psychotherapist.

Callings are like that. To identify them, two things are normally required: the God-given ability to do the job, and (equally God-given) enjoyment in doing it because of your desire to do it.

* In my case, I studied for the Catholic priesthood for twelve and a half years, at the end of which (after a long, dark struggle) I came to know clearly that the priesthood was not my calling. I abandoned my studies five months before ordination. I enjoyed every minute of those twelve-plus years and am everlastingly grateful for them. I loved my friends and colleagues and had many great priests around as models (plus one or two likeable odd ones, who for my generation of students provided a treasure house of anecdotes). I had the advantages of superb spiritual direction and, toward the end, an outside psychotherapist to help me sort things out. Himself a silent Sphinx, he made me sort it out myself. In the end, though, the answer came most clearly during months of silent prayer.

Callings are sometimes like that.

I not only felt much inner resistance to the priesthood -- insisting that this was not my vocation -- but also an inner drive of my being toward becoming a writer, being involved in politics and social change, trying my hand at fiction, exploring new territories in philosophy and theology. All of these ventures would involve me, I knew, in controversy. It would be enough to defend myself, it seemed, without implicating the whole church (as were I a priest, I would). I needed to be a bit more of a Lone Ranger than a priest ought to be.

* John Templeton, founder of the Templeton Growth Fund and perhaps the greatest investor of our time, whom in recent years I have come to know and admire tremendously, told Forbes magazine recently that when he was young, he had wanted to become a missionary. From his early days in Winchester, Tennessee, and continuing through his years at Yale and then at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, he had been a devout young man. At Yale and Oxford, he met a number of Christian missionaries home from abroad and recognized, finally, that he didn't have that kind of stuff.

"I realized that they had more talent as missionaries than I did," he remembers. "But I also realized that I was more talented with money than they were. So I decided to devote myself to helping the missionaries financially." In fact, Sir John (he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1987 for his wide-ranging accomplishments) pioneered in the field of international investing, typically being the first to invest where things looked bleakest and showing extraordinary patience.

His financial success has been amazing. So also has been his worldwide philanthropy In retirement, he is carrying his philanthropy to new areas -- chiefly those concerned with ideas and the formation of the virtue and character necessary for human freedom.

Incidentally, to this day, he flies tourist class, preferring to invest the savings he retains.

One can see in Sir John's several books that he has drawn great drafts of objectivity, perspective, patience, and calm judgment from time devoted every day to prayer. He treats his lifetime occupation, global investing, as a calling God made him to do his best at.

* Edward Crosby Johnson II, another talented investor, is best known for starting Fidelity Investments, today the largest mutual fund company in the country. Known in investment circles as "Mister Johnson," he was the grandson of both a doctor and a missionary. Mister Johnson's father, Samuel Johnson, followed neither the medical nor the ministerial route. Instead, he was drafted into a family retailing business, which he never enjoyed. What really interested Samuel were his hobbies, including the study of pre-Christian religions.

Mister Johnson inherited his father's interest in religion, especially Eastern religious philosophies, because they gave him another way of looking at the world and understanding people. But it was his father's lack of enthusiasm for his work -- compared to the passion he had for his hobbies -- that convinced Mister Johnson early on that he wanted to do something he was good at and enjoyed. Initially, he chose law as a profession, but he soon discovered law wasn't his calling. Investing (and the psychology of the stock market) was. To him, the stock market was "like a beautiful woman, endlessly fascinating, endlessly complex, always changing, always mystifying."

In 1943, he decided to turn his hobby into a full-time career by buying the management contract for (or the fight to manage) a small Boston-based mutual fund, Fidelity Fund. Thus, Fidelity Investments began by one man's pursuing his natural interests. In the 1940s, mutual funds -- separate legal entities that pooled the money of many small investors -- were still catching on. What they offered individuals was diversification and professional management at a reasonable cost -- something previously available only to the wealthy.

Providing a service that had never before been readily available delighted Mister Johnson. He wrote to his Harvard classmates in 1945: "It is a real thrill to try to give the small investor -- of which our companies are mainly comprised -- as good a job of investing as the big man gets." That thought nourished him throughout his life as he increased the range of funds available to small investors.

* Kenneth Lay, chairman and chief executive officer of the largest natural gas company in the United States (and one of the largest in the world), Enron Corp of Houston, some time ago announced publicly his company's vision: "To become the first natural gas major...the most innovating and reliable provider of clean energy worldwide." His greatest inward satisfaction, however, has a somewhat different focus.

"In my own case," Lay confided, "I grew up the son of a Baptist minister. From this background, I was fully exposed to not only legal behavior but moral and ethical behavior and what that means from the standpoint of leading organizations and people. I was, and am, a strong believer that one of the most satisfying things in life is to create a highly moral and ethical environment in which every individual is allowed and encouraged to realize their God-given potential. There are few things more satisfying than to see individuals reach levels of performance that they would have thought was virtually impossible for themselves."

* Lorraine Miller spent two years as a VISTA volunteer in North Carolina, and a career in business was the furthest thing from her mind. At that time, she thought that "creating a profit also created poverty." After winning the Utah Small Business Person of the Year Award, she won the same award for the entire United States in 1994. She didn't get started in business because she wanted to make money; because her first boss had offended her, she wanted to be her own boss (incidentally, one of the three most frequently cited motives among small businessmen). Back in Utah she had noticed that neither outdoor nurseries nor florists supplied the market with potted house plants and decided to spend half her $2,000 in savings on a small stock of such plants in a store she named the Glass Menagerie. Every weekend she drove twelve hours each way to California in her VW van in search of unusual plants. "When you're 25 years old, you can work all day and drive all night, and still have plenty of energy," she told Nation's Business. For the first five years, her income was below the poverty line, and she knew nothing about filing regular government reports mandated by labor laws, since as a self-employed person she didn't have to know.

About five years after her start-up, she moved into a new store under a new name, Cactus & Tropicals, hired her first employee, built a greenhouse, and began selling wholesale to grocery chains. She learned quickly enough that margins are higher in retail and went back to that, while starting an ambitious new program on the side: taking care of plants (now 2 million of them) on maintenance contract for commercial establishments. She was then employing thirty-five persons. She still wasn't in it for the money.

When she was told, on receiving her national and statewide awards, that she had "peaked," she got energized. She began planning to increase her business from $1 million to $5 million in sales within three years. Now she was in it for the money: "I want to create a space where my employees can grow, too, and to do that for them -- helping them with their educations and things like that -- I have to make a lot of money."

You can pay yourself poverty wages at the beginning, but you can't find and keep good workers except by paying good wages and benefits. Making more money didn't make her life easier, of course. She went into business to be her own boss; now her business is her boss, and it's a demanding one at that. But this business is hers.

* Building a corporate community of a certain type was also the deepest satisfaction of the business career of Robert Malott, retired chairman of the FMC Corporation in Chicago. At his retirement, he was lauded for a number of highly significant achievements in the firm. "One can be thanked," he later noted, "for successful events, but to be recognized for establishing a 'corporate culture' about which one can be proud, is much more significant." This satisfaction was driven home to him by a manager of his whom he had lauded at a retirement party a little earlier than his own. The insight arrived via a handwritten note:

Bob, thanks so much for your kind words at my retirement party. The praise and credit you granted me was quite thoughtful and much appreciated. It has been a privilege to be associated with you for the past 20 years. The high standards of performance you set, coupled with your spotless integrity, made me better than I might otherwise have been. Although you graciously gave me credit for many things, it was only your leadership, guidance and unrelenting demand to do the best possible job that allowed me to do what I did. It is a truism that the character of an organization reflects the character of the person at the top, and all credit goes to you for making FMC truly great over the years you were at the helm. It was a wonderful journey; thanks so much for all your help along the way.

Bob Malott cherishes that letter as much as the memory of any other business achievement. Some men are born leaders and get their greatest pleasure from the esprit de corps they can build up, in the task-driven enterprise that a business is. That, too, is a kind of calling.

* A quite different angle is taken by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, who got his start in a garage in Palo Alto. Packard's public language is typically quite secular, as when he discussed why a company exists in the first place: "Why are we here? I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists solely to make money." Packard knows that making money is an important result of a company's existence, if the company is any good. But a result isn't a cause. "We have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so that they are able to accomplish something collectively that they could not accomplish separately -- they make a contribution to society, a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental."

Part of the business vocation, then, is getting together and forming a task-oriented community -- a community, in other words, not to satisfy all needs but to get a few specific things done -- done for the public, "to make a contribution to society" that no one person could make alone but must be made by many together. Most business callings are not for loners, although for them there are some niche businesses and many niches within most business firms. On the whole, a certain instinct for community and working well with others is highly desirable, if not required. Good social habits -- and even social graces -- are significant assets.

But Packard's point is deeper than this. "You can look around and still see underlying drives" at work in businesses. These come "largely from a desire to do something else -- to make a product -- to give a service -- generally, to do something which is of value." "The real reason for Hewlett-Packard's existence is to provide something that is unique." What drives inventors of a new product or service is the desire to bring this new thing before the public. They want to prove to themselves and to others that it is as valuable as at one point they may have been alone in thinking that it would be.

Never underestimate the creative pleasure that drives many who find their calling in business. Walking an interested stranger through their operations, they take as much pride in what they have built as any diva in a standing-ovation performance at La Scala. They remember what it was like when all this was nothing but a dream (concerning which, many sober people told them they would lose their shirt). Like the Creator in Genesis, they look over what they have made and find it good -- but usually with a restless eye, trying to make it better.

* My friend Joe Jacobs, founder of Jacobs Engineering in Los Angeles (and author of the instructive book, The Compassionate Conservative), is bubbly and joyous about the fun he had building up his business. He has a sign on his desk, "BABE RUTH STRUCK OUT 1330 TIMES." Asked, he is glad to tell you about the many times that Joe Jacobs struck out too. At one point, when he tried to retire too early, things started to go wrong -- some bad decisions were made -- under the new chief executive officer, and personnel relations also deteriorated badly. Joe had really intended to retire and so stayed away from the company. By the time he was persuaded to return, after about four years, bankruptcy was near at hand. He had two choices: accept bankruptcy or cut personnel severely and swim as strongly as he could for solid land far ahead. Those he had to cut were guys he had hired and enjoyed being with, having known their wives and kids and all their family circumstances for years. The cutting was, he says, "gut-wrenching," the hardest thing he had ever had to do. Sink or swim, he kept telling himself. His only comfort -- it wasn't much at the time -- was that if he succeeded, he would save a good many other jobs; if he did nothing, the firm, and everybody with it, would go down.

In retrospect, Joe came to think he hadn't made all the right choices either. There were some people he let go who probably would have done a better job than one or two of those he kept. But the firm came out of it all right: much smaller and with bare cupboards for a while, but later stronger than ever. It's the pain, Joe suggests, that makes the later happiness of having built the firm so poignantly satisfying. You can't forget, later, all the costs, close brushes with disaster, bad days and nights. The hard and stormy things are as much a part of a calling as the cloudless ones. Emerging on the other side, you understand accomplishment in ways that in youth you did not expect. The 1330 strikeouts make the homers sweeter.

One reason people like a business calling, then, is the challenges it offers. They like the feeling, toward the end of life, that they were severely tested and accomplished something -- something that they can see, that they know has made a contribution. They know this, because people use what they have provided, sometimes praise it, value it, pay good money for it -- and are glad to do so. Joe can see the buildings, refineries, and countless other projects his firm has put up. He takes pride in their quality. But I think that most of all, he has enjoyed going through the hardships with his team and his association with them. Joe is both a people person and an excellence person -- an engineer with lots of compassion. (He defines compassion by whether it helps the beneficiary to better his or her condition, or only makes the giver feel good; he is pretty passionate about the harm the latter does.)

* The unsung heroes of business, of course, are those in middle management who, when things get tough, as at Jacobs Engineering some years ago and in the current wave of restructuring, are the ones let go. Talk about the firm going down; what about their families? James H. Billington, Jr., an alert and inquisitive Episcopal seminarian who worked for five years in a large corporation -- his aim was to form a ministry for people in business -- has written eloquently:

The middle manager faces a double bind. First, he is subject to the same religious/cultural conditioning as everyone else in a business, subtly teaching him that he is just in it for the money, that making money is bad, etc. But he is also subject to the disrespect of the business elite, who have been taught in the business schools that middle management is the reason that American companies cannot compete. But in fact most Americans who work in business are still middle managers. And middle management still makes up most of the jobs in business.

Most people in business are neither tightening bolts on engines nor sitting in the president's office. "Most people," Billington reminds us, "are still writing invoices or computer codes, running a department or sales force -- working to implement plans that they did not create." They are still most of the people in the business world. "And NOWHERE," Billington concludes, "in the business literature that I have found is there any recognition of the legitimate, substantive and honorable contributions of the middle manager."

Well, I have found many and eloquent tributes to such people and their indispensability -- on their retirement. Heads of firms certainly know who keeps their company surging ahead, or at least on even keel, and how helpless they are if their middle managers are incompetent or inattentive. Most pride themselves on recruiting, motivating, and amply rewarding top-flight managers, including a bunch of them capable of replacing the top honcho. Managerial talent is rare, and the extra margin of inventiveness and courage that make a great leader is even rarer.

Moreover, being a middle manager is not primarily a way station on the way to the top. Probably everyone wants at first to test themselves against that possibility; but, realistically, most middle managers expect some advancement over a lifetime, higher salaries and bonuses, and most of all the ever higher respect of their peers, while expecting to remain middle managers (vice-president tops) until retirement. Middle management, many know early, is their calling. They want to be super good at it. They want to make a contribution. Most of all, they need to know in their own minds that they have done so.

Second, their daily bread is recognition from their peers and those who work with them that they are very good at what they do. But they also want, as humans properly do, recognition from higher ups.

As the world goes, except for the few at the top (deservedly or undeservedly), most people do not get the recognition they have earned. "That's what's wrong with the world," an otherworldly and happy nun, Sister Gervase, told me in seventh grade. "People don't compliment other people enough. They would change the world if they did."

More than anyone else in business, middle managers are in the position to compliment those who work under them every day The spirit they give the firm -- if they are sustained by their superiors -- is the firm in action. They are the chief community builders. They give (or fail to give) the firm its human character.

They are also the main trustees of the integrity and moral practices of the firm. They are its moral and intellectual spine. Business is a noble field of work, and they are its chief day-to-day guardians. By their leadership, they make their bosses look good -- or bad -- and, in a slightly different way, they also make those who work under them look good -- or bad. (Their leadership is nearly always more hands-on than that of those above them.) For all the solid, concrete things that business does for communities and for the entire nation, they are the down-to-earth leaders most responsible. For their success, they depend a lot on good leadership from the top, but it may also be argued that good leadership at the top depends even more disproportionately on them.

* The advertising executive Emilie Griffin presents another aspect of the business calling in her good book, The Reflective Executive. It is clear, she writes, "that the best entrepreneurial visions are founded in love." She uses the example of Phyllis Jordan, founder of PJ's Coffee and Tea Company, a regional enterprise that franchises coffee shops. PJ's is built around two different insights, each of them expressing in plain English an aspect of what religious people would call love -- not the sentiment, but the effort to build community.

Phyllis Jordan explains why she started PJ's in this fashion:

* What I was really attracted to was being in the retail business....

* I had a friend who was in the coffee business, that gave me the information I needed, the know-how....

* But I think that sense of her in [her coffee shop], offering a product which was a shared experience with a friend, that was what attracted me to coffee. I wanted to see people talking to the people they've come with, or maybe the people they haven't come with. I don't think we can document this, but I know there are major social changes going on, including a return to basics, maybe concern about the environment, a number of things that are converging to make neighborhood experiences and simple values very important. I think specialty coffee in the U.S. is part of that.

This camaraderie in the coffee shop -- a neighborhood place for a little sharing -- is the central insight that animates Phyllis Jordan and PJ's, as other central insights animate scores of thousands of other entrepreneurs.

But Jordan has another central theme in mind, too -- a worldwide one. She served for a year as president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and saw another level of community at work:

The [specialty coffee] association brings together people from growing countries and exporters and farmers with roasters and retailers in a trade association in which the focus is the product, and not on which part of the business you're in, and in that way it's a very cooperative effort, one that produces win-win solutions for growers and manufacturers and everybody. We think the organization can only work if everybody along the chain wins.

Here Emilie Griffin herself comments that "words such as these from a regional entrepreneur may have about them a sense of the commonplace, the ordinary." To her eye, though, this creative urge of enterprise can become a saintly one -- in the perfectly natural sense of saintliness: "When the reflective executive strives to live out his or her inner vision through a sharing of values, not only with co-workers and customers, not only with colleagues and others in industry, but with the world in the largest possible definition or conception of which he or she is capable."

Jordan may not want her words to fly so high, and yet what she does matters more than what she says. She enjoys building community, on more than one level. That sort of calling seems to please something deep within her. She sees her daily work -- "what I liked was the tremendous variety of tasks" -- in a far larger framework. Entrepreneurs often see a little more in humble things than other people do. Their characteristic habit is sharp discernment.

* In this vein, Paul F. Oreffice, retired chairman of the Dow Chemical Company, says that his greatest satisfaction in business was working with and knowing the "guys" in middle management -- always on his lookout for talent. He remembers spotting a thirty-one-year old researcher who became a "gigantic" strength for the company. His greatest pride lies in having spotted eight special talents among younger fellows in the company in 1975 and pushing them along. From this list of eight, he said with satisfaction almost twenty years later, seven were now in the top leadership of the firm.

"Never chew out a colleague in public," he says. "The idea is to create a team. And to form in them the habit of not bringing you their problems. The only question I had for each of them was, 'What's your solution?' They have to be the ones to make the decisions. They have to learn to talk things through in a team -- one brain is never as good as four or five brains."

He also says: "If a guy doesn't look at business as a vocation, he's not gonna make it. And the vocation changes as you grow. For me, it was one thing at 30, another at 50 and at 60. The one consistent thing -- I loved challenges."

Paul was born in Italy, and as a child emigrated with his parents to Ecuador. His first business success was turning a small chemical company in Brazil into the nation's second largest in the field. He was twenty-eight when he started on that challenge.

He loved his years at Dow, turning down offers to work elsewhere, always being given new challenges. He liked working for a company -- "founded by a farm boy from Nebraska" -- that had a tradition of never, under any circumstances, paying bribes or going under the table with officials. "The rule was there: That made it easy for those who came later. No ifs, ands, or buts."

It is obvious that Mr. Oreffice -- twice an immigrant, to Latin America and to the United States -- loved his time in business.

* John W. Rowe of New England Electric System remembers thinking that money is not what really motivated him when, one day, between two jobs, he was standing at a newsstand in an airport. He saw a copy of Playboy and distinctly recalls telling himself that he could understand people buying it and enjoying it, "but I don't really wish to make my living selling it." It's important to value the business you're in and to take satisfaction from providing its services or goods to others. At the end of the day, you want to respect what you do. In a certain sense, our work is us. We get into it, and it gets into us.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a good living, or even in seeking out a life of business that produces good rewards. But not all ways of gaining money are equal. Better than inheriting money is to earn it through inventiveness and hard work -- or at least to make something better of it, using it well. Business is about creating goods and services, jobs and benefits, and new wealth that didn't exist before. In choosing a line of work, you want to find the one that suits the kind of person you are -- the individual you are. Mr. Rowe is very much oriented toward free market ideas, although his business (natural gas) is a halfway house between entrepreneurship and nonprofit government activity. In this mix, the government and politics side can be especially irritating, because it seems to be moved more often by transient emotion than by long-term reason. Perhaps this explains the slight vehemence Mr. Rowe showed when a pastor in Maine came by to see him when he was at an earlier job with a utility company.

After discussing the main item on his agenda, the pastor asked Mr. Rowe, more or less by way of chitchat, how he liked his job. Mr. Rowe replied: "Oh, I like it. It gives me a chance to work with people I respect, who know a lot that I don't know. I get to protect capital from some of the depredations of government. Most of all, I like to think I'm helping to keep an important part of our economic infrastructure in place, in support of other people's opportunities."

Mr. Rowe still remembers the stunned look on the minister's face: "You mean you have a calling?"


What have we learned about callings from these examples? At least four points should now be clear, about callings in general and those in business in particular.

First, each calling is unique to each individual. Not everyone wants to be a psychiatrist, as Dr. Peck discovered. Nor, for that matter, does everyone want to work in business. Each of us is as unique in our calling as we are in being made in the image of God. (It would take an infinite number of human beings, St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, to mirror back the infinite facets of the Godhead. Each person reflects only a small -- but beautiful -- part of the whole.)

Second, a calling requires certain preconditions. It requires more than desires; it requires talent. Not everyone can be, simply by desiring it, an opera singer, or professional athlete, or leader of a large enterprise. For a calling to be right, it must fit our abilities. Another precondition is love -- not just love of the final product but, as the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith once put it, "The test of a vocation is love of drudgery it involves." Long hours, frustrations, small steps forward, struggles: unless these too are welcomed with a certain joy, the claim to being called has a hollow ring.

Third, a true calling reveals its presence by the enjoyment and sense of renewed energies its practice yields us. This does not mean that sometimes we do not groan inwardly at the weight of the burdens imposed on us or that we never feel reluctance about reentering bloody combat. Facing hard tasks necessarily exacts dread. Indeed, there are times when we wish we did not have to face every burden our calling imposes on us. Still, finding ourselves where we are and with the responsibilities we bear, we know it is our duty -- part of what we were meant to do -- to soldier on.

Enjoying what we do is not always a feeling of enjoyment; it is sometimes the gritty resolution a man or woman shows in doing what must be done -- perhaps with inner dread and yet without whimpering self-pity. These are things a grown man or woman must do. There is an odd satisfaction in bearing certain pains. The young men who died defending the pass at Thermopylae, Aristotle intimates, died happy. But he was not describing their feelings, only their knowledge that they did what brave young Spartans ought to do to protect their city, no matter the taste of ashes in their mouths.

A fourth truth about callings is also apparent: they are not usually easy to discover. Frequently, many false paths are taken before the satisfying path is at last uncovered. Experiments, painful setbacks, false hopes, discernment, prayer, and much patience are often required before the light goes on.

Businesspeople who have found their calling will recognize all of these things, if only tacitly. Against sometimes dreary opposition, they know their calling to be morally legitimate, even noble. Listen again to the testimony heard in this chapter. The point of business is "to accomplish something collectively," "to make a contribution to society," "to do something which is of value," "to provide something that is unique," "to test a person's talents and character," "to build community." This is unambiguously moral language that reflects moral reality.

The rest of this book puts flesh on the bones of the callings briefly glimpsed here. At least four themes concerning the moral nature of business have thus far risen to the surface: (1) Business is able to build praiseworthy forms of community. (2) A life in business is creative; it can transform the conditions of human life dramatically and for the better (or the worse). (3) Business is a source of endless personal challenge, testing intellectual and moral mettle in the crucible of practicality (4) Those practicing it often see business as a way of giving back to society, both through the goods and services it produces and in philanthropy, through the new wealth it generates.

All of these themes will surface in the chapters to come. But before we start exploring them from the inside out, we need to answer two more questions about the nature of a calling. Can a calling remain implicit and unspoken? Is there such a thing as a secular, nonreligious calling?


I know from talking to and corresponding with businesspeople that many have never been asked whether they regard what they do as a calling. They don't think about themselves that way. That has not been the language of the business schools, the economics textbooks, or the secularized public speech of our time. (In previous generations, public speech in America was frequently biblical and Shakespearean.) But most of them, they say, do start mulling the idea of calling once it is raised. Some confess that they could think of what they do as a calling, even if they have not. That would not be much of a reach from what they have already been doing. It's just one of those things that, so far, too few people say.

But they could, and it would be better if they did. It would give them a greater sense of being part of a noble profession. It would raise their own esteem for what they do -- and no doubt stimulate their imaginations about how they might gain greater and deeper satisfactions from doing it. It would help tie them more profoundly to traditions going far back into the past, in seeing their own high place in the scheme of things. The human project is a universal project. We are involved in bringing the Creator's work to its intended fulfillment by being co-creators in a very grand project, indeed. In this, we are tied to the whole human race.

In particular, business has a special role to play in bringing hope -- and not only hope, but actual economic progress -- to the billion or so truly indigent people on this planet. Business is, bar none, the best real hope of the poor. And that is one of the noblest callings inherent in business activities: to raise up the poor.


Yes. That answer rests on the evidence of fact. Among America's well-educated elites especially, many people do think in nonreligious terms. (Frequently they do not recognize that many of today's secular terms are derived from religious precedents. However, we would not speak of secularization unless our basic terms had first been religious.) As far as they can see, there is no one or nothing calling them. Indeed, they know from experience the difference between going down one road in search of their own proper career for a while and recognizing it as a mistake, then turning in a new direction. They know what it is like to "find themselves" -- to find the activities they are good at and thoroughly enjoy and feel at home doing. They are quite capable of using what seems to them to be a wholly secular language. In addition, religious language may make some of them uncomfortable; it feels false.

For most citizens of the world, however, the background language of their self-awareness springs from the originality and distinctive dramaturgy of the biblical vision of cosmic history. For some three thousand years, both unbelievers and those affected by the biblical vision (the Koran accepts the Jewish and Christian testaments as its starting place) have engaged in rival picturings and theory building in trying to interpret human life. But we all must deal with the same facts of human experience, so there is much overlap in our interpretations. It is fair to say that how the West thinks about life has been mainly shaped (for a majority of the peoples of the world) by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Even the philosophical riches of pagan Greece and Rome, buried under the ferocity of the barbarian invasions from the fourth century on, were recovered for the West under the aegis of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim rulers, scholars, and artists. In all three of these great shaping forces of the human imagination, moreover, one fundamental point is the same: the Creator of all things knows the name of each of us -- knows thoroughly, better than we do ourselves, what is in us, for he put it there and intends for us to do something with it -- something that meshes with his intentions for many other people. This proposition, suitably rephrased, is capable of standing as a distinctively secular worldview.

Nothing is by chance, these religions teach, in the sense of being beyond his knowing of it, although certainly in life there are many crossing lines of contingency that set off those sparks of surprise, spontaneity, and unplannedness that we call chance. In this respect, religious believers and secular unbelievers might see the same realities but interpret their meaning differently

Further, for the three major religions mentioned, God does not pull puppets' strings. He made free creatures to govern themselves freely. Still, in freely improvising our parts in the drama of our lives, we must plainly draw on the unique resources with which he endowed each of us. All this, too, has been rethought and reexpressed in secular analogues.

Religious persons imagine that the Creator is disappointed if we fail to live up to what we are capable of -- at least as disappointed as we ourselves are likely to be. It is hard to hide such disappointment from ourselves if it is present, even if subconsciously. But secular persons, examining themselves as if from the viewpoint of an impartial spectator, may feel the same disappointment.

In our civilization, then, more secularized than it used to be, atheists and agnostics and those who are just not particularly religious (or tone-deaf regarding religion) are likely to have just as strong a sense of calling as religious persons, although they would not use the word God. After all, the God they don't believe in tends to be the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the "self" they do know about is of the same cultural inheritance as that of believers. Though they are likely to speak of knowing themselves, finding their own identity, seeking their own fulfillment, even "doing their own thing," what they are doing is very like responding to a calling.

Put more strongly, the secular language of self-knowledge, identity, self-fulfillment, and the pursuit of (personal) happiness has been so interblended with the traditional Jewish-Christian-Muslim sense of calling for thousands of years that it is not easy to pull them apart. Within limits, all of us are talking about pretty much the same thing. We are probably flexible enough to try on each other's language and to translate from one to the other as needed.


People in business are not merely "rational economic agents." Each is also a human being in search of his calling. All are trying to live fulfilled lives, eager to mix their own identity with their work and their work with their identity. They want more satisfactions from work than money.

Further, people in business are not merely objects of analysis; they are subjects. They have other purposes in their economic activities than merely economic ones; they have other dimensions of their being to satisfy. More than that, they are ends in themselves. The soul of each of us is, in the words of the poet, "immortal diamond."

And the most important thing people wish to satisfy cannot be generalized because it is as unique to every person as an individual's DNA.

There is no more beautiful thing in the universe than the human person. What shows each of us to be distinctive is the trajectory of the calling we pursue, like meteorites across the night sky of history.

Copyright © 1996 by Michael Novak

About The Author

Michael and Jana Novak are the authors of Tell Me Why, a Simon & Schuster book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (April 6, 2013)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476745725

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Michael and jana Novak