How To Decide Between A Career And A Vocation?

Choosing the right career

My favorite part of David Brooks' book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life was a discussion on the differences between a career and a vocation. I have previously written about Amy Wrzesniewski's research, Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People's Relations to Their Work. Her insights were eye-opening for me as I had only had a notion of jobs and careers and very little understanding of what a calling was. Brooks expands on this topic but refers to the third type of work as a vocation, rather than a calling.

Most of us have heard of a formula for finding a career: evaluate your talents, decide what you are good at, and research which talents have value in the marketplace. Once you figure out which path to take, get a good education, improve your professional skills, explore opportunities in the job market, and pursue a job with the potential for the highest financial reward. At that point, attention turns to climbing the upward ladder of success, which is measured by self-esteem, respect, and financial security.

The vocation mentality is different. A vocation is not about your ego, working at the job that pays well, or living a lifestyle of convenience. People choose a vocation when some activity affects them on a much deeper level. Carl Jung called a vocation "an irrational factor that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths...Anyone with a vocation hears the voice of the inner man: He is called."

Viktor Frankl distinguished the questions we ask ourselves when we choose a career and when we choose a calling. The typical career question is "What do I want from life" or "What can I do to make myself happy?" A calling question is "What is life asking of me?" or "What is my responsibility here?" To discover one's calling, Nietzsche recommended thinking back to the times in the past when we felt most fulfilled.

Brooks contends that while we might think we want a life of ease and comfort, we have something inside of us that yearns for a calling that demands dedication and sacrifice. The two examples that illustrate Brooks' point in our personal lives are marriage and having children. Those are transformational choices that turn us into different people. Transformational choices are hard and scary because we do not know what our transformed selves will be like or if we will want the transformed life once everything is complete. This is why people have commitment phobias and why they do not pursue new opportunities in their professional lives.

When trying to find a vocation or a calling, instead of asking "What am I good at?" Brooks says we should ask these questions:

  • What am I motivated to do?
  • What activity do I love so much that I am going to keep getting better at over the span of many decades?
  • What will touch my deepest desire?
  • What activity gives me my deepest satisfaction?

Brooks summarizes the difference between a career and a vocation with the following quote: "A job is a way of making a living, but work is a particular way of being needed, of fulfilling the responsibility that life has placed before you." We spend more than half of our lives at work. Wouldn't it be wise to live every day with our desires awake and alive?

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