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.