Calling vs. Vocation

I went to a writing seminar last week led by David James Duncan.  It was no big deal.  He just happened to write my favorite novel OF ALL TIME.  Don’t worry, though, I was cool.  Nonchalant, even.  Like I do this sort of thing all the time.   I had my pencils sharpened and my favorite notebook tucked inside a very hip messenger bag (not really, it’s from Old Navy circa 1999 but I think I pulled it off) and I felt like it was my first day of school.

Prior to the seminar my biggest fear was being disappointed.  He was perched atop a mighty lofty pedestal in my mind.  What if he failed to live up to my ridiculously high expectations?  What if I didn’t like him?    But it only took about 10 minutes for me to know that all my worry had been for naught.   He led us through various writing exercises in the morning and after lunch there was an in-depth interview and some Q&A with the audience.  He was warm and unpolished.  He spoke off-the-cuff, shared personal stories, and gave words to things that I have felt but not known how to express, particularly with regard to writing.

Is it your calling?

There was one part of the interview that really caught my attention because it had to do with “calling.”  I’ve been pondering the concept of “calling” and re-evaluating my vocation so I was curious to hear what Duncan had to say.  The interviewer asked if Duncan felt called to be a writer. Or if writing was just his job.  Duncan immediately said,

“Yes.  Yes, it’s a calling.
Writing is what makes my mortality bearable.”

It makes his mortality bearable.  He went on to say, though, that he just happened to be lucky enough to have his calling and his job be one and the same.  That’s not the case for most people.  And it got me thinking.

Since college I’ve been operating under the assumption that I should be able to find a vocation, a job, that is also a “calling.”   That’s the gold standard, right? Even Steve Jobs espoused it so it must be true.





Did Steve Jobs Get it Right?

I’ve only recently started to scrutinize this notion and it’s been a near-constant topic of conversation in our house of late, as I’ve been re-thinking my job situation.  Ultimately I think Jobs was wrong.  We need to separate the two.  Job and Calling.   Two separate things.   If we are to look at it as David James Duncan does, your “calling” is whatever makes your mortality bearable, be it writing or dancing, singing or swimming, guitar-playing or guinea pig raising.  And we ought to pursue our various callings with vigor and purpose.  Vocation, on the other hand, is your job; your daily work.  Lucky is the person who has a co-mingling of the two but for most of us, that is not the case and it doesn’t need to be in order to have a meaningful daily existence.

Do What You Love?

Miya Tokumitsu wrote about the “Do What You Love” movement in Jacobin Magazine earlier this month and she pointed out some additional flaws in the concept.   Check it out.

“Work becomes divided into two opposing classes: that which is lovable (creative, intellectual, socially prestigious) and that which is not (repetitive, unintellectual, undistinguished). Those in the lovable work camp are vastly more privileged in terms of wealth, social status, education, society’s racial biases, and political clout, while comprising a small minority of the workforce.”

You see the trouble?  Doing what you love sounds all dreamy and wonderful but the very fact that Jason and I are wringing our hands and trying to figure out the perfect job indicts us.  It reveals our sense of entitlement and our privilege.  There’s that pesky privilege again.   Tokumitsu goes on to say that,

“If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves — in fact, to loving ourselves — what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores?  The answer is: nothing.”

In his Op Ed in the New York Times  Gordon Marino also explores this concept of “Do What You Love” with regard to work.  Marino, an occupational counselor and philosophy professor, points out the sharp dichotomy between the more privileged students who come to his office and those who are economically challenged.  For the latter, “the notion of doing what you love or find meaningful is not the idea that comes first to mind; nor should it.”  He also tells the story of his own father, who labored all his life at a job he hated in order to send his kids to college.

Marino says,

“This is of course not to claim that we ought to avoid work that we love doing just because we love doing it. That would be absurd. For some, a happy harmony exists or develops in which they find pleasure in using their talents in a responsible, other-oriented way.”

I’m not sure where this leaves my current job dilemma.  If I’m honest, I’m still holding out hope that I might be one of those lucky few who find that happy harmony.  But just in case I’m not, I’m going to keep these closing words of Marino’s piece close at hand.

“Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation.  Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can.”



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