One can distinguish between two radically different approaches to making life choicesthe professional and the vocational. The professional approach is so familiar as to be a cultural commonplace. It has such primacy in personal power, economic currency and institutional warrant that it claims near monopoly status: is there any other way to make a decision? The professional approach is based on logic and is susceptible to quantitative analysis.
Imagine college undergraduates deciding whether or not to pursue a career, for example, in medicine. Using a professional approach to making this choice, they might begin by considering its advantages and disadvantages. Under Advantages they list the reasons to pursue a career in medicinepersonal satisfaction, substantial income, social prestige. Under Disadvantages they list the drawbacksdifficult training, job stress. If the advantages are greater than the disadvantages, the logic of a professional approach is satisfied. Their parents and teachers will validate the sensibleness of the decision. It is rational.
Alternatively, these hypothetical students might calculate the odds of succeeding in the proposed profession. Doing the odds is another methodology of the professional approach to decision-making. What are the odds that I will make it into med school or later become board certified? If the odds for success are high, then the decision is approved.
There is nothing wrong with this professional approach to decision-making. It is sensible. It receives such high societal endorsement as to raise the question whether any other approach is required.
Here’s the rub. Imagine other college undergraduates who want to become, for example, novelists. They try using the conventional predictors for successful decision-making. They eagerly list as one Advantage to becoming a novelist: I really want to do it, and I can bring joy to others!
Under Disadvantages the list grows longer: unreliable income, no job security, the difficulty of publishing. When these students consider the odds, things look even worse. The odds against an unsolicited manuscript at a major New York publishing house are 18,000 to 1dubious as the basis for a major life choice. What’s more, parents or teachers are unlikely to support such a choice. Responses range from the patronizing (That would make a nice hobby) to the anxious (How will you make a living?).
This second group needs a completely different logic from the professional approach to affirm their choice. How, then, does anyone choose against the odds, ignoring a long list of disadvantages, and still experience validation of his or her decision?
Vocation represents a radical alternative to profession. The two approaches cannot compete with each other because they do not occupy the same field of play. They are completely different, rooted in soils from different lands.
The word vocation derives from the Latin infinitive vocare, to call, carrying inside it the Latin noun vox, or voice. The simplest English translation for vocation is calling. In common parlance, vocation and profession are sometimes used interchangeably. For my purposes, however, they must remain distinct, because they are decidedly different. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the word vocation was co-opted by a technical education movement, voc-tech for short. This label usually referred to instruction in auto mechanics, refrigeration or electronic repairs. Again, for my purposes, one must strip such connotations from the Velcro surfaces of the word. I’m aiming at the more ancient understanding of vocation.
In Hebrew Scripture, Moses had a vocation. In Christian Scripture, Mary had a vocation. There is no profession called Liberator of Slaves and, if there were, the list of disadvantages to such a career choice would be much longer than the advantages. Likewise, there is no profession called Mother of God. Again, if there were, the odds against success would be infinite. Neither Mary nor Moses subscribed to a professional approach when making their life-defining decisions. Each understood this alternative paradigm.
Recall the story of Moses, a Jewish slave raised incognito in the home of the Egyptian pharaoh, who struggled with his own identity. He experienced increasing empathy for his kin, the Hebrew slaves. One day, as Moses walked in the desert, from the midst of a burning bush a voice called out for him to lead the Hebrews into freedom. Moses recognized the speaker as the God of his people. And his first response was to offer a minor correction to God. I believe you have my brother Aaron in mind for this job. He’s the one who got straight A’s in public speaking. Interestingly, this initial reaction of Moses represented a rational, professional approach to the life choice facing him. He encouraged God to compare résumés, his own versus Aaron’s, believing that Aaron had a better chance of succeeding than did Moses, better odds. Nonetheless, Moses was the one God had in mind, and Moses would have to choose whether to accept this calling on the basis of some logic other than career planning.
Mary, a mere teenager, faced a similar dilemma when called by an angel to bear a child by the Holy Spirit. Mary didn’t ask for this assignment. She never typed Mother of God at the top of a résumé after Career Objective. For Mary to pursue this destiny as a career option, rather than accepting it as her vocation, would have been presumptuous in the extreme, even blasphemous. To say yes, Mary invoked the logic of vocation, not profession.
Common to every story of vocation within the biblical traditions, both Hebrew and Christian, are four characteristics. First, a person is called for a special purpose: Moses to lead his people from captivity to the Promised Land, Mary to give birth to God’s son. Accepting a call means making a commitment to its fulfillment.
Second, the person who is called has a special gift. This should not be confused with aptitude, skill or talent. The gift associated with vocation must be revealed to the individual.
Third, implicit in vocation is the presence of a caller. In biblical narratives, the caller has a nameYahweh, God, Jesus. The caller’s voice is heard as something outside the person called.
Fourth, accepting a vocation leads to a life of sacrifice, faith and often darkness. Neither Moses nor Mary could have predicted what answering the call would mean. Each had to sacrifice other life possibilities in order to say yes to the caller. Each had to exercise faith in order to accept the unknown, to walk into darkness in order to find the light.
Vocation focuses on obedience, accountability, and faithfulness to the caller. Vocation demands life-ordering disciplines to ensure responsiveness and also requires silence, in order to be attentive to the caller.
Discerning one’s vocation relies on a process quite different from choosing a profession. A vocation must be heard or felt with passion. This passionto write, to paint, to heal, to teachmust be confirmed first by oneself. Second, it needs to match one’s gifts. And, finally, it needs to be confirmed by a community of others or by a mentor. This final step helps preclude mistaking a personal compulsion with a genuine vocation.
Elizabeth O’Connor, in her book Eighth Day of Creation: Gifts and Creativity (Word Books, 1971), wrote insightfully of vocation from a religious perspective:
If I develop one gift, it means that other gifts will not be used. Doors will close on a million lovely possibilities. I will become a painter or a doctor only if denial becomes a part of my picture of reality. Commitment at the point of my gifts means that I must give up being a straddler. Somewhere in the deeps of me I know this.... My commitment will give me an identity. When asked who I am, I will be reminded that the answer lies in the exercise of my gifts.
Almost all the support systems for personal development in American society favor a professional approach to decision-making over a vocational approach. Formal educationbeginning at least with high school and continuing through college, with its near exclusive emphasis on career planningcan hardly recognize anything other than the professional paradigm.
My own profession is higher education; I am a professor and a dean. But my vocation is writing; I am a novelist. I bootleg my vocation through my profession, as most artists have done throughout Western history. As an educator who orders his personal life according to vocation, I worry that university life provides scant vocabulary for discussing vocation. I worry that the perceived urgency to build a student’s résumé leaves too little time for silence, for listening to the still, small voice of the caller. I worry that all parties to the educational enterprise (students, parents and teachers) have come to expect too little for their tuition and their time.
As a college dean, when I speak to incoming freshmen and their parents, I say: Please expect more of this institution than preparing you for an entry-level job when you graduate. To place the bar there is to place it too low. While an undergraduate, experiment rigorously and radically to discover your God-given gifts. Develop the spiritual discipline and emotional maturity to go on an internal retreat,’ listening for the voice of a caller, hearing the possibilities of vocation. Turn your focus from the want ads to your own wants, and to the wants of your creator. Anything less is not worthy of the name higher education.
Rainer Maria Rilke, the late 19th-century poet, wrote in his volume Letters to a Young Poet a passage that could serve as a primer on vocational thinking:
Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above allask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple I must, then build your life according to this necessity: your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
(translation by M. D. Herter Norton, The Norton Library edition)
For me, a core curriculuma curriculum around which all else orbitsmust be focused on vocation. Academic disciplines should testify to the intimate connection between personal identity and societal engagement.
There is nothing wrong with the professional approach to making major life choices. It is just not sufficient. Vocation offers a radical alternative and a more ancient approach. Professional thinking may be necessary to ensure economic success. But vocational thinking is necessary to ensure personal fulfillment. To extrapolate from Elizabeth O’Connor, not to use one’s gifts, regardless of excuse, is to live an anguished life apart from creativity. Look around, and see if it isn’t true.