Jobs & vocations

The blind spiritual instinct that tells us obscurely that our own lives have a particular importance and purpose, and which urges us to find out our vocation, seeks in so doing to bring us to a decision that will dedicate our lives irrevocably to their true purpose.

— Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin:     Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin:     Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

— From the 1967 movie The Graduate

[I write here with more conviction on the subject of vocations than I am entitled to. I have been mulling over the idea of vocation, and I push hard in certain directions here. Feel free to push back. I hope I am more flexible than I sound here, and I would appreciate any feedback or correction you may wish to advance.]

Our society encourages vocations for something like the first twelve years of a child’s life. Our society stops encouraging kids in their vocations after that, generally, when it’s time to put away childish things and get a job.

Vocations aren’t usually jobs or even professions, at least in their pure forms. Children usually aren’t interested in jobs, per se, anyway. If you want to quiet a child, ask her what she wants to do when she grows up. To a child, the options must seem incomprehensible, dull, or daunting. Most of all, adult work often may seem unimportant to a child except as a means of making money.

“I’d like to be a dental hygienist [forklift operator, hairstylist, corporate counsel, travel agent, telephone repairman, secretary, mortician, drywall hanger, swimming coach, accountant, etc.]!”

I bet you don’t hear any of that from children when you ask them what they wish to be when they grow up. More likely you get averted eyes and something like, “I dunno.”

Most children don’t talk about it, but they innately seem to understand the difference between a job and a vocation. A job is a living, something kids might have to do if the world continues to require people to work to get along by the time they grow up. But vocation is adventure.

Vocation helped me finesse a potential showdown with a student in class a couple of months ago. Tommy was trying to engage the other ninth graders around him with a small ball. I asked him for it, and he responded by putting it behind his back. As I got closer to his desk and asked for it again, he gave me a grin and asked me to guess which hand it was in. (I knew it would be in neither hand at the end of his act if I continued to participate in it.)

I surprised him. I folded my arms and grinned. “You want to be a magician, don’t you?”

He looked up at me with a different kind of engagement. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

I never got the ball, but – more to the point – I never saw the ball again. Even better, we found something to talk about for the remaining weeks of school.

People with vocations include entrepreneurs, healers, magicians, mystics, naturalists, poets, prophets, super heroes, virtuosos, and wizards. A lot of kids want to be wizards. My son Warren went through a wizard phase. He hasn’t hit a landscape architect phase yet, though, and I don’t see it happening.

David Keirsey, author of Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, has emboldened me to use the word “vocation” in a somewhat unorthodox way. In Please Understand Me II, Keirsey asserts that each of us aspires to become an executive, a mystic, a virtuoso, or a wizard. He defines each of these four terms broadly, and he links each term with one of the four temperaments he creates from Isabel Briggs Myers’s famous personality matrix. What I call a vocation he calls an aspiration and “more of a dream than an ambition,” noting, for instance, that “it’s one thing to dream of becoming a virtuoso . . . and quite another to become one.” True, but I think we might raise our sights if we acknowledge our dreams and then think and talk (discreetly, perhaps, at first) about our vocations in terms of our dreams.

Thomas Merton seems to see vocations pretty much as the Catholic Church teaches about it, but he also finds exceptions that help him define “vocation” in a way I like: as becoming the truth that we love. Sticking with the sense of the word “vocation” usually used in the Catholic Catechism, Merton limits his discussion in his chapter on vocation in his book No Man Is an Island principally to spouses, monks, and priests. He starts the chapter more broadly, though, stating, “Each one of us has some kind of vocation.” He also ends the chapter more broadly, pointing out that St. Francis found any label, even one for his vocation, too constricting:

He had thrown all vocations to the winds together with his clothes and other possessions. He did not think of himself as an apostle, but as a tramp.

Merton writes that, in addition to people with unorthodox vocations like St. Francis, a small percentage of people struggle for years without finding their vocations. This isn’t necessarily bad, since “. . . their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong.” I like to think that these people’s cultures – and even their own thinking – aren’t ready for the kind of vocation these people have before God. Our purpose is deeper than our thinking or our culture may be able to grasp. We wish to become the truth that we love, as Merton puts it, and there may not be a label for what we become.

It’s interesting to talk about what a vocation is and how it might differ from a profession or a job. It may also be fun but less rewarding to quibble over titles to the vocations. An agreed-upon list of vocations is impossible and unimportant, I guess. (It may be important to recognize, though, that some titles of vocations may also be titles for professions or jobs, just as some vocations may approximate certain professions or jobs.)

My buddy and mentor Michael is a wizard. He was a pastor (and a good one), but that title didn’t really encompass much of him. When we got rid of the churchy part of the church – you’d have to look pretty hard to find it anymore – Michael found himself with no short answer to the Great American FAQ: “What do you do?”

Wizards are part salesman (sort of the seedy side of the vocation), so Michael tailors his answers to the GAFAQ to fit his audience. He may allude to things like his life coaching, his infrastructure work with tribal leaders in India, his training of pastors in Eastern Europe, or his long conversations and friendships with other underground figures up and down the East Coast. But none of it comes to the point. “Life coach,” for one thing, is such a halfway house of a phrase. Why not commit yourself and say, “I’m a wizard”? That would get them thinking.

(Though I think most wizards abhor direct answers, or at least they don’t like a lot of talk that doesn’t tend to point to a new means of perception. I’m still enjoying one of Michael’s recent remarks: “If people really know you, they don’t know you.”)

Michael has no job anymore, though he works hard. He is one of the relatively few people I know who is paid for practicing his vocation.

I don’t think, though, that we should reinvent our economy to employ people at their vocations. Most of us benefit from working at our vocations without being paid for them. One such benefit is that we learn that our vocation is not about the money. Another benefit may be that we lessen the likelihood of veering from our true vocation at an early stage when it might be more susceptible to corruption. Still, it would be interesting to imagine what our society would be like, and what accommodations it would have to make, if it took to openly and more uniformly recognizing vocations and the people who practice them well.

The relationship between one’s job and one’s vocation is important. If I agree with Merton and Keirsey that everyone has an aspiration or vocation, then I can better put up with a less-than-fulfilling job. If I am in the job market, I may wish to look for jobs that will help me learn some aspect of my vocation, whether that aspect is a skill or a character trait. Finally, understanding that my job and my vocation are different may keep me from falling into the trap of defining myself by my job or profession. (As I hope to establish in another post, someone operating well in her vocation will hardly be tempted to view and understand herself in terms of her vocation alone.)

I think blogging has helped many people with their jobs and their vocations along these lines. I blog in part to get closer to my true vocation or at least to think through my vocation better. Blogging also helps me put my job in perspective since blogging gives me an outlet to express myself in ways I am not called upon to use at work.

Vocations may differ from jobs in at least four ways: in how one prepares for them, in how one is recognized in them, in how one relates to the public, and in what part of us is employed by them.

Vocations may differ from jobs in how one prepares for them. Jobs require training and maybe some experience, but, while vocations often require these efforts as well, they usually require dreams and inner transformation, too. A child or young adult may dream of a vocation, even if he conceives of it poorly. According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph at age seventeen senses his future vocation to govern, and he expresses his sense in the form of dreams he shares with his father and brothers in which the sun, moon, and stars – representing parents and brothers – bow down to him. The dream alone does not make Joseph a ruler. Instead, from the glimpses we get of Joseph over the ensuing thirteen years, it appears that his stints as a slave and a prisoner give Joseph the humility and patience necessary to tackle his vocation.

Literature and culture give us other examples of how the fire of transformation prepares people for their vocations. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Two Towers, Gandalf the Gray needs the abyss to become Gandalf the White, after all! Vision quests and similar coming-of-age rituals practiced by many Native American tribes deliberately put younger male teens through difficult experiences in part to help them discover and prepare for their vocations. The hablacia (“crying for a vision”) ceremony of the Oglala Lakota tribe was typical in this regard:

During the ceremony, a young person will leave behind the mundane problems of life, and contemplate on his place in the universe. Similar to a vision quest, the individual will sit for four days and four nights, without food or water, and contemplate the whys of his existence. A person will ask, “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “What is my purpose?” Basically, this ceremony helps a person get in touch with their spiritual being. In other words, they ask the spiritual part of themselves to come to life, so that they may fulfill their part in the Divine Plan.

(Gary Null, “Native American Healing: Native Americans Speak Out on Sacred Healing and Transformational Rituals,”

Vocations may differ from jobs also in how one becomes recognized in her field. Jobs and professions often require certificates or licenses. Instead of these forms of accreditation, I may need confirmation in my vocation somewhat less formally, but sometimes more meaningfully, by some respected mentors and authorities who have themselves been recognized as proficient in their vocations.

Vocations may differ from jobs also in the relationship one has to the public. For most vocations, it’s no good hanging a shingle. Instead of proclaiming my vocation, I may need for someone in need of it to recognize the vocation in me. I think Jesus is saying as much when he sends out his disciples to an unsuspecting public with these words:

He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (Matthew 10:41)

“So long as it’s within your level of competence, when someone recognizes and draws on a vocation in you, he will be rewarded with something from you,” Jesus may be saying. Jesus also seems to recognize that how he himself stands with his audience determines what the audience is going to draw from him. “Who do men say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” are not rhetorical questions, I suggest. If I don’t think someone is a superhero – or if I don’t believe in superheroes – then I may never receive a superhero’s services. In this way, vocations are respectful of the perceptions of individuals their practitioners come in contact with. They thus tend to honor people’s humanity in a way that normal marketing efforts may not.

A vocation’s “if you don’t get it, you don’t get it” approach may be advantageous for another reason: many vocations seem to be more effective when practiced under the radar. As a healer, Jesus was not using reverse psychology when he told many of his patients not to breathe a word about their healing to anybody.

One may well begin to understand the relationship between her gifts and the world’s use of them differently when she is living out a vocation. A vocation may or may not start as a dream, but it ends up being whatever is left once this fire of transformation is underway or ends. Through these fires, someone may become something she never expected to be. One may also sense a hard-won strength within herself, and one may sense when others are drawing on it. A strong humility may replace a fragile confidence in her relations with others. Marketing still may be part of attempting to live by her vocation, but the success of the marketing is not much of an indicator of the validity of her vocation. This passage from a letter by Vincent Van Gogh may express something of these effects:

There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down – maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later.

(Vincent Van Gogh, The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1959))

Van Gogh’s words suggest a final way in which vocations may differ from jobs: they may employ separate understandings of ourselves. Jobs usually require us to perform a role, to put on a certain hat or helmet during our shift. Jobs may come with codes of conduct, and some jobs (especially professions) may require that we conduct ourselves appropriately after hours as well as when we are at work. Vocations, however, come from inside us more than from a role we have studied and practiced. Someone operating well in a vocation is operating as herself through the truth she loves and has become.



Posted July 2005