Thursday, June 3, 2010

Money & Career

Finding Your Calling Part I: What Is a Vocation?

“Blessed is he that has found his work! Let him ask no other blessedness.”—Carlye

There are two great decisions in a man’s life, two poles around which the first quarter of his typically life revolve: whom to marry and which occupation to pursue.

The latter is a question we face as soon as we are old enough to talk. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a query put to us by parents, teachers, and friends. In our teen years we are content to keep our plans vague and nebulous. But in college the pressure builds-we want to choose a major related to our future career. But we may still not know what career we’re aiming for. So we change majors once, twice, and maybe more.

And then we graduate. Society says we have now entered the world of work and should be diving into our chosen profession. But even then, many of us aren’t sure what profession that’s supposed to be.

We typically have a better idea of what we don’t want in a job than what we do. Not something mundane, something like what our dads did-long hours stuck in a cubicle feeling like a cog in a corporate machine, Maalox and scotch hidden in a desk drawer. After all, a third of our lives will be spent working; we’ll probably spend more time at work than we do with our spouse and kids. It’s no wonder we agonize over “what to be when we grow up”…even when we’re all grown up.

We want a job that doesn’t actually feel like a job. Something that uses our talents and brings us great satisfaction.

What we really want isn’t a job at all; we want a vocation, a calling.

Three Perspectives on Work

There are three ways people look at what they do for work:

A Job. Those who see their work as a job are those who belt out “Everybody's Working For The Weekened'' great gusto. They live for breaks, for vacation. The job is simply a means to the end: a paycheck. They need to support their family/pay their rent, and this is the ticket they punch to do it. The job may not be terrible, but it offers the worker very little real satisfaction.

A Career. The careerist derives meaning not from the nature of the work itself but the gratification that comes from advancing through the ranks and earning promotions and raises. This motivates the careerist to put in extra time; work doesn’t necessarily stop when they punch out. However, once this forward progress stops, the careerist becomes unsatisfied and frustrated.

A Vocation/Calling. A vocation is work you do for its own sake; you almost feel like you’d do it even if you didn’t get paid. The rewards of wages and prestige are peripheral to getting to use one’s passion in a satisfying way. Those in a vocation feel that their work has an effect on the greater good and an impact beyond themselves. They believe that their work truly utilizes their unique gifts and talents. This is what they were meant to do.

When it comes to life satisfaction and happiness, those with a job are the least satisfied, then those with a career, and those with a vocation feel the most satisfied. No surprises there. A vocation encompasses more than the work you are paid for; it taps into your whole life purpose. When you’ve found your calling, you know it- your life is full of of joy, satisfaction, and true fulfillment. Conversely, if you’re living a life at odds with your vocation, there’s no doubt about that either. You’re indescribably restless; you wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you can’t breathe, like there’s a great weight on your chest; life seems to be passing you by and you have no idea what to do about it.

What Is a Vocation?

“The deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” -Parker J. Palmer

The etymology of vocation versus career is most revealing. The word vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare” or “to call.” It denotes a voice summoning a person to a unique purpose. The word career derives from the Latin word for cart and the Middle French word for race track. It denotes quickly moving in a circle, never going anywhere.

Man was made to embrace his unique destiny, not soldier on as a hamster in a wheel. Or in the words of Lily Tomlin, “The problem with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

So if a vocation is something that calls to you-who is doing the calling? And how do you listen to its voice?

Have you ever noticed how much of children’s personalities seen to come hardwired into them? Only a few months into life babies start showing a unique personality. Young children already have characteristics, inclinations, proclivities, likes and dislikes that follow them all the way into adulthood. It’s pretty wild really. When I think about my siblings and I, I’m always amazed how three people who were born to and raised by the same parents, in the same place, could turn out so differently and take such different paths.

I believe the seeds of your true self are born within you. Author Parker J. Palmer calls these seeds “birthright gifts.”

Your birthright gifts are what make you an entirely unique person, with a unique purpose and special talents you can give to the world and to others. Thus, the call comes from within you, not from without; it is a call to bring these seeds to fruition. These are the seeds of your true self, planted within you when you were born. You may believe that the seeds were planted specially by God, by chance, or even that you existed before this incarnation of yourself. Unfortunately, as we grow up, this true self gets buried by the influence and expectations of family, friends, teachers, and the media. We get sorted and labeled and placed into slots. Instead of listening to the call within us, we make decisions based on a need for approval, prestige, and security.

Embracing your calling means shutting off the voices of what others say you ought to do and living true to your real self. Not imitating dad or other men you admire. We take seriously everything but our own thoughts and beliefs-we drink up what our teachers tell us, what our parents tell us, what our ministers tell us. We eagerly lap up quotes from great men. We find these source of truth valuable, but dismiss our own insights and philosophy as hopelessly insignificant. But as Rabbi Zusya has said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?” They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

So how do we recover our birthright gifts and find our calling by living as our true selves? We’ll cover that next week in Part II. Also, as I was researching this topic, I came across a great book from 1914 called SELF CULTURE THROUGH THE VOCATION. It contains insights on vocation too good not to share, so in conjunction with this two part series, I’ll be posting some excerpts this week and next. Stay tuned.

A Man's Life

What Is Manliness?

The Need to Plant Manliness in a Firm Foundation

While there are some ageless principles of manliness, characteristics celebrated by hundreds of different cultures in many different eras, some of the ideals of manhood have varied across peoples and time periods. These aspects of manliness were planted in transitory parts of culture.

For many ancient cultures, manhood was rooted in being a warrior. But it was a battlefield-specific manhood ill-prepared for life during peacetime. In early American history, manhood was connected with being a yeoman farmer or independent artisan. But when the Industrial Revolution moved men from farm to factory, men wondered if true manliness was possible in the absence of the economic independence they once enjoyed. In the 20th century, manhood meant being the familial breadwinner. But during times of Depression and recession, and when women joined the workforce in great numbers, men felt deeply emasculated. And in many cultures in many different times, being a man meant being part of a privileged class or race; in the United States, men owned slaves who were but 3/5 the equivalent of “real men.” When class and citizenship became achievable for anyone willing to put in the work, men felt that not only their position of privilege was under attack, but their very manhood:

When manhood is connected to such cultural, and ultimately ephemeral guideposts, and times change, a crisis of manhood results. Some men then cling stubbornly to a past that cannot be recreated while others seek to redefine manliness in ways that while well-intentioned, end up stripping manhood of its unique vitality. Thus, the definition of manliness clearly needs to be rooted in a firm and immovable foundation. One that works across time, place, and culture and is attainable for any man, in any situation.

Manliness as Virtue

While the definition of manliness has been endlessly discussed and dissected in scholarly tomes, my definition of manliness is actually quite straightforward. And ancient.

Aristotle set out in his Nicomachean Ethics a code of ethics for men to live by. For Aristotle and many of the ancient Greeks, manliness meant living a life filled with with eudaimonia. What’s eudaimonia? Translators and philosophers have given different definitions for it, but the best way to describe eudaimonia is living a life of “human flourishing,” or excellence. Aristotle believed that man’s purpose was to take actions guided by rational thought that would lead to excellence in every aspect of his life. Thus, manliness meant being the best man you can be.

For the ancient Romans, manliness meant living a life of virtue. In fact, the English word “virtue” comes from the Latin word virtus, which meant manliness or masculine strength. The Romans believed that to be manly, a man had to cultivate virtues like courage, temperance, industry, and dutifulness. Thus for the ancient Romans, manliness meant living a life of virtue.

So my definition of manliness, like Aristotle’s and the Romans, is simple: striving for excellence and virtue in all areas of your life, fulfilling your potential as a man, and being the absolute best brother, friend, husband, father and citizen you can be. This mission is fulfilled by the cultivation of manly virtues like:

  • Courage
  • Loyalty
  • Industry
  • Resiliency
  • Resolution
  • Personal Responsibility
  • Self-Reliance
  • Integrity
  • Sacrifice

These virtues are manliness. And they can be striven for by any man, in any situation. From the soldier to the corporate warrior, from the firefighter to the stay-at-home dad. The ways in which men today can demonstrate these virtues may often be smaller and quieter than our forebearers, but that doesn’t make them any less important or vital.

As this point, someone will always jump in and say, “Wait, wait, shouldn’t women be striving for these virtues as well?”


There are two ways to define manhood. One way is to say that manhood is the opposite of womanhood. The other is to say that manhood is the opposite of childhood.

The former seems to be quite popular, but it often leads to a superficial kind of manliness. Men who ascribe to this philosophy end up cultivating a manliness concerned with outward characteristics. They worry about whether x,y, or z is manly and whether the things they enjoy and do are effeminate because many women also enjoy them.

I subscribe to the latter philosophy. Manhood is the opposite of childhood and concerns one’s inner values. A child is self-centered, fearful, and dependent. A man is bold, courageous, respectful, independent and of service to others. Thus a man becomes a man when he matures and leaves behind childish things. Likewise, a woman becomes a woman when she matures into real adulthood.

Both genders are capable of and should strive for virtuous, human excellence. When a woman lives the virtues, that is womanliness; when a man lives the virtues, that is manliness.

This is not to say I think the genders are identical. In the CODE OF MAN, Dr. Waller Newell argues:

“We need to aim for the highest fulfillment of which all people are capable-moral and intellectual virtues that are the same for men and women at their peaks-while recognizing the diverse qualities that men and women contribute to this common human endeavor for excellence. We need a sympathetic reengagement with traditional teachings that stress that while men and women share a capacity for the highest virtues, their passions, temperaments, and sentiments can differ, resulting in different paths to those common pinnacles.”

Which is to say that women and men strive for the same virtues, but often attain them and express them in different ways. The virtues will be lived and manifested differently in the lives of sisters, mothers, and wives than in brothers, husbands, and fathers. Two different musical instruments, playing the exact same notes, will produce two different sounds. The difference in the sounds is one of those ineffable things that’s hard to describe with words, but easy to discern. Neither instrument is better than the other; in the hands of the diligent and dedicated, each instrument plays music which fills the spirit and adds beauty to the world.

Manhood and the Culture of Manhood

So how does all this connect with last week’s post about the “culture of manhood?”

While I think that men and women can aim for the same goal of virtuous excellence, I don’t think we have identical weaknesses in that journey.

One of the weaknesses unique to men is that we have a hard time moving from boyhood into manhood. Yes, it’s a generalization, but women seems to have an easier and more natural transition into mature adulthood. Men, on the other hand, often need a push to leave adolescence behind. It’s easier to remain dependent, to stay as a as a consumer instead of a creator, to live for self instead of others.

Cultures across the world have recognized this. And as we talked about last week, the culture of manhood was designed to address the problem and to make manhood a desirable goal, something men would desperately want to attain. Immaturity was stigmatized. What the culture of manhood did was provide an external pull which drew as many men as possible into manhood-it was a wide net, a tide that lifted many boats and motivated the many men who would have otherwise been content to hide in the background and live safe, mediocre lives.

We see this played out in modern society where there no longer exists a strong culture of manhood-many men today are struggling to grow up and into honorable manhood. They’re never sure when they’ve crossed that threshold and have left behind the boy and taken on the mantle of manliness.

But even though we no longer have a strong culture of manhood, this does not mean there aren’t still individuals who seek out manhood on their own. These men are far fewer in number and are self-motivated. Their desire for manhood comes from within, from an internal drive.

But the attainment of manhood does not happen in a private vacuum. The men I admire today, the men who have attained manhood despite the odds, all have one thing in common: They sought and completed a rite-of-passage. They went looking for a challenge when others hid from it.

While last time we mentioned that opportunities to prove one’s manhood and experience a rite-of-passage were almost non-existent, this was meant to describe the state of things on a cultural level. Society has become so niche-fied and fragmented, that there no longer exists rites-of-passage that are recognized by the entire “tribe.”

The challenge for today’s man is to become part of the little tribes that still offer this invaluable rite-of-passage. The military, churches, fraternal organizations, and adventures of other sorts can still help men cross the bridge into manhood. Or the passage may come to a man by accident, through the strong and resilient handling of the death of a father or the contraction of a disease. By whatever means it comes, the rite-of-passage breaks the gravitational pull of the path of least resistance, the path trod by so many, and propels a man onto the road to true manliness.

The loss of a culture of manhood surely has its downsides-the biggest being that fewer men will be prodded into mature manhood. But for the men with courage to still seek it out, the upside is that the manliness they find will not be born of outward pressures or cultural expectations but from inner values, conscience, truth, and heart.

The bottom line? True manhood still exists for those who seek it