Identity Exploration and Vocational Discernment

“Who do you want to be when you grow up?” Most likely we’ve all been asked this question, and probably have asked it ourselves, a time or two. In psychology, there are a variety of models of personality development that set out to explain the answer to that question–some focus on early childhood experiences or interpersonal relationships or ethnic identity. Often, identity development theory centers on the theme of finding meaning and purpose in life and contributing to society. College is a time of heightened identity exploration which provides unique opportunity for self-reflection and vocational discernment. 

Erik Erikson (1902-1994) might address the question above by saying, “We are what we love.” He paid special attention to identity development in his psychosocial stages of lifespan development. During adolescence we are tasked with answering the question “Who am I?” Advancement in cognitive abilities during adolescence allows teens to wrestle with this question in new ways, exploring possible adult selves. Adolescents compare what they know about themselves (e.g., abilities, interests, values) to feedback from significant others in their lives.

Successful identity development includes finding a meaningful place in the culture and taking on a productive role in society. Erikson argued that identity achievement cultivates the ego strength of fidelity, or the ability to sustain loyalties even in instances of contradiction of values. Identity achievement and the virtue of fidelity positively influence capacity for intimacy in relationships as well as contributions to future generations. {For more on the connection between loyalty and vocation, see “Royce, loyalty, and vocation – some initial thoughts.”}

Certainly, identity achievement doesn’t happen overnight or without struggle and perhaps even requires moments of crisis. Turning 18 doesn’t flip a “magic adulthood switch”! Jeffrey Arnett expanded the period of identity development into “emerging adulthood.” He believes the cultural and historical context in which traditional college aged students find themselves today delays their path to adulthood and identity achievement. Emerging adulthood (ages 18-25) is characterized by ambiguity. Arnett identifies five characteristics of this developmental period: identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between, and possibilities. The most distinctive is identity exploration. Young adults explore how they fit in to society by trying out different roles in work/school and relationships. They develop an understanding of their values and beliefs as well as their capabilities and limitations.

Identity exploration in adolescence and young adulthood may be difficult, frustrating, and stressful. The idea of finding a meaningful role in society is a tall order not to be taken lightly. Existing in a state of uncertainty and feeling in-between can be unsettling. However, having a life full of possibilities ahead can also be exciting and wonderful. In “Exploring Callings in the Midst of Uncertainty,” in Calling All Years Good: Christian Vocation Throughout Life’s Seasons (Eerdmans, 2017), Katherine Turpin addressed some of the strengths that young adulthood and the state of identity exploration can offer to vocational discernment. Young adults have a physical and mental energy that allows them to display courage and fearlessness as they face the future. Their sense of idealism and hope can inspire them to challenge the status quo and make change. Mentors invest in young adults as they see their potential to take their work, and the world, in thrilling new directions. Turpin wrote:

…tak[ing] responsibility for one’s own needs but also contribut[ing] to the building of community through one’s work and care for others marks the transition into the vocation of adulthood and full recognition of adult status by a larger community.

Katherine Turpin, “Exploring Callings in the Midst of Uncertainty,” (117-118).

Establishing a sense of identity allows individuals to know what their needs are as well as the talents and gifts they possess to help build their communities.

As a college professor at a Christian institution, it is rewarding to play a role in helping students realize their God-given talents and gifts, grow in faith, and see how their education, vocations, and personal identity can glorify God and serve others. Guiding students in vocational discernment through the lens of identity development has helped me communicate to students a richer understanding of vocation in their lives. Martin Luther emphasized the high callings of everyday life in his view of vocation and believed each one of us is summoned to live and perform many roles. Yet often, students hold on to the narrow view of vocation as simply a job or career.

In my experience, students are able to see their identities as multifaceted a bit more easily than they are able to see their vocations as multifaceted, at first. During a class activity I use to explore the nature of our identities I began to notice that, rather than listing things like gender, race, or religion, students were including things like friend, student, sister, future counselor, etc. They were identifying the multiple callings God placed before them. Connecting interests and talents to exploring a major and future career is one part of vocational discernment. Prompt students to answer the question “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” with responses that address more than just a future career. Who is God calling them to be as a future counselor, a college student, a friend, a member of their family, a community member, a world citizen? {For more on the idea of multiple callings, see “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.“}

Hopefully, our answers to that question will reflect the words of Erik Erikson, “We are what we love.”


Rachel Pickett is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of First-Year Experience at Concordia University Wisconsin. She is also a licensed psychologist. Her academic interests include college student development and the role of vocational discernment. She was a member of the 2017 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocation Exploration seminar.

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