54 pages 1 hour read

David Isay, Maya Millett

Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, written by Dave Isay with Maya Millett and published in 2016, is a collection of brief, first-person narratives about the value and meaning of work. These stories were collected through the oral history project of StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization that records, archives, and shares stories of life in America. StoryCorps and its founder and president, Dave Isay, have received many grants and awards for the organization’s work, including the MacArthur “Genius” award and several Peabody Awards. Callings is the fifth book released as part of StoryCorps’s various initiatives.

The stories in Callings, told through a series of interviews, are organized into five categories: dreamers, generations, healers, philosophers, and groundbreakers. Each story is organized not by the kind of work but by the meaning or inspiration derived from that work. The people in these stories are diverse, covering a wide range of genders, classes, ethnic backgrounds, and jobs. Despite the many differences, each of these stories focuses on the inspirations that bring people to work they love and the impact they build from that work.

This study guide refers to the 2017 paperback print edition of Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, published by Penguin Books.

Plot Summary

Part 1 of Callings focuses on dreamers. The stories in this section include a man who works for tips as a street corner astronomer and a boy who dreamed of being an NBA referee. One woman leaves a corporate office job to tend to a city drawbridge for much less pay, and another escapes an impoverished background as a migrant farmer to work in a library and share her love of literacy. Mixed with these unlikely jobs are the kinds of jobs more traditionally associated with dreams, such as a scientist and an astronaut. Each of these stories demonstrates the way any kind of job can become a dream and a calling.

Family lineages of work are the focus in Part 2. These stories show the ways grandparents, parents, and children can inspire each other to pursue certain jobs, not only by following in the footsteps of earlier generations but also by fulfilling a dream the previous generation could not. In this section, professions include firefighters, policemen, doctors, and engineers, but also more unusual paths, like those of Barbara Moore, who works as a bricklayer, or Red Lain, who is an oil rig driller. In all these accounts, pride is a central element—pride in not only one’s work but also one’s family.

Part 3 is about healers, both those who work in medical professions and those who see their calling fulfilled through less traditional kinds of work. These include an oncology nurse called to her profession because her mother had insufficient care while dying from cancer and an ob-gyn who attends each patient’s childbirth no matter what. However, it also includes sanitation workers, who view their work as a way to care for their community’s health and well-being, and ironworkers who maintain the Golden Gate Bridge and prevent suicide attempts on the bridge. This section asks readers to reconsider what does and does not count as a healing profession and argues that emotional and spiritual healing is as important as the physical.

The individuals featured in Part 4, meanwhile, ask important questions in their roles as philosophers. Though none of the workers in this section are literal philosophers, they all approach life with a drive toward wisdom and enlightenment and encourage these things in others. These stories include educators, like a science teacher and an art teacher. In addition, some gain wisdom from unusual jobs, like a beekeeper, beer vendor, and waitress. In each of these jobs, from the elevated position of a congressman to the unglamorous work of a deli salmon slicer, the work impacts all aspects of their lives.

Finally, the fifth part showcases groundbreakers: People who break through barriers of race, gender, or class; offer innovations; or defy societal restrictions to do the right thing. For instance, there are the stories of the first Black NASCAR driver and the inventor of the first cartridge-based video game system. Also included here are a pastor and a county clerk who support LGBTQ rights despite loud and sometimes violent opposition. Another inspiring story involves a blind chef who must fight through bureaucratic red tape to open her own restaurant.

The stories in Callings share similar threads of discipline, resilience, sacrifice, and hard work. They advocate for taking pride in one’s work no matter what that work looks like. Callings argues that finding one’s calling is vital for fostering purpose and meaning in life. It also suggests that sometimes all one needs to do is shift perspective to see the value in every kind of work. It asks readers to reflect on what is important to them and what they wish to gain out of their work and life and then offers answers to those questions.