Career Vs. Vocation: Are You Doing Work That Matters?

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“Because if the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat, and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person.”— Clayton Christensen

Recently, I found myself at a high school graduation ceremony. My son, who’s about a year old, found the event utterly boring. So my de facto job was to keep him occupied in the hall of the arena. Although I didn’t hear much of the various speakers’ words, I happened to catch one phrase toward the end as the door opened and someone passed into the ceremony. The phrase, “Go get rich, go get famous!

This phrase represents a broader mindset consuming young people today. We seem to believe that making money and securing a certain level of status will lead to a happy and fulfilled life. In 1976, a survey asked people to list their life goals. According to David Brooks, “fame ranked fifteen out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.” We seem to be more preoccupied today by how we appear in the world, rather than who we are becoming deep down.

A while back I was having a conversation with a college student. I asked him what he wanted to do after he graduates from college. He replied, “I want to be a CEO.” Naturally, my follow-up question was, “A CEO of any particular company or industry?” To my surprise he returned with a simple, “No.” He may as well have said, “I don’t really care what I do as long as I have a giant salary and a sexy title.” We should be weary of this type of shallow mindset. Business is a means to an end, not the end itself. Business is a tool to get something done, not a life purpose. Business is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.

Of course, this fellow of shallow ambitions doesn’t represent all young people. A lot of young people have ambitions to do something more specific. Often times this something more specific involves “changing the world.” We want to “startup” and create something innovative that impacts the world in some large way. We want to be the next Steve Jobs, and nothing short of that will do. You can observe this trend by doing a simple exercise. Log into your LinkedIn account, start searching through people, and count how many times you see the title “Founder” or “Co-founder” or “CEO.” Some of these are legitimate titles, others are simply attempts at creating a certain perception or aspiring to something empty.

Adam 1 Vs. Adam 2

Among all these ambitions—making money, securing status, changing the world—there’s a pattern. They’re all external ambitions. They’re all, according to Joseph Soleveitchik, part of the Adam 1 side of our nature. In the book The Lonely Man of Faith, Soleveitchik argues that there are two opposing depictions of Adam from Genesis in the Bible, Adam 1 and Adam 2. Soleveitchik calls Adam 1 the part of our nature that, as David Brooks puts it, “is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. He wants to have high status and win victories.” Adam 1 is the side of our nature that wants to explore, discover, and create. The utilitarian, economic side of our nature that wants to focus on the thing that leads to the greatest immediate “utility.”

Adam 2, on the other hand “wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong — not only to do good, but to be good.” Today, Adam 2 seems to have been drowned out by Adam 1. We tend to be much more focused on external ambitions, which are easily seen by others, rather than on our inner moral character. Part of this is the result of our vocabulary. Young people are constantly being told things like, “do what you love,” “follow your inner-voice,” and “be true to yourself.” Unfortunately, this advice is leading us to a surplus of money and status, but a shortage of deep joy and meaning.

A few months back I found myself on the hunt for the right career path. Naturally, I reached out to various mentors to help me with this search. They all had great advice, but one had life-changing advice. He told me that I was searching in the wrong places. He explained that instead of looking for what will provide wealth, job security, or status, I should be looking for what will help me build character. He suggested asking myself what life wants and needs from me. He suggested that, rather than focusing on building a resume, I should focus on building a eulogy.

Career Vs. Vocation

All of this leads us to the problem of having a career versus having a vocation. A career is something we seek out, in search of satisfying our Adam 1 ambitions—wealth, fame, status, etc. A career leads to the temporary pleasures of wealth and status. A vocation, on the other hand, is something that summons us. A vocation leads to the deep, meaningful, and lasting joy in our work. A career is found by focusing on the self. A vocation is found by quieting the self.

When you’re searching for a career you ask a different set of questions than when you’re looking for a vocation. As you go through this list, think about how you’ve decided on your “career path.” You’ve most likely been asking yourself the “career” questions (I know this because I have always focused on those questions myself). I’m not suggesting that the “career” questions are immoral, but simply that they might be leading us to less noble work than we could be doing. Try asking yourself the “vocation” questions, and see if it leads you to a different, perhaps more meaningful, path:

Career: What do I want from life?
Vocation: What does life want from me?

Career: What do I have a “competitive advantage” in?
Vocation: What are my circumstances calling me to do?

Career: What market gaps can I exploit for profits using my skill set?
Vocation: What gaps exist in my surrounding circumstances that demand my skill set?

Career: What am I passionate about?
Vocation: What can I do that will be useful?

Career: What can I do to enhance my strengths?
Vocation: What can I do to overcome my weaknesses?

Career: What can I do to become talented, skilled, and admired?
Vocation: What can I do to develop an inner depth of character?

Career: How can I get the most out of life?
Vocation: How can I give the most to life?

Career: What can I take?
Vocation: What can I give?

Your vocation probably won’t come in one flash of inspiration, but overtime, as you continually ask yourself the “vocation” questions, you’ll eventually find it. Allow me to give you just one example of someone who exemplified a true vocation. Hopefully, this example will help you to better understand how one goes about finding a vocation.

Exemplar: Victor Frankl

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Between 1942 and 1945 Viktor Frankl labored in four different imprisonment camps, including Auschwitz. Less than a year after marrying his wife, Tilly Grosser, he was taken prisoner, stripped of all of his possessions, and forced to work as a slave laborer. He would never see his pregnant wife, his brother, or his parents ever again.

In the worst conditions known to mankind, Frankl found meaning in a vocation. Here is what he said about it:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

What did life expect of Viktor Frankl? What were his circumstances calling him to do? He could’ve thrown up his hands, waived the white flag, and surrendered to life. Instead, he spent the majority of his time in the camps serving others. Helping to keep other prisoners from committing suicide. Life had granted him a gift in psychiatry, and had now placed before him an opportunity to use his gift. He helped everyone he came in contact with to find their purpose. Whether it was living to see their family members again, living to return to their professional work, or in Frankl’s own case, living to tell the world what he was learning about life and meaning while in the camps.

Frankl also gave people this advice after everything he learned while in the camps:

“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.
Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run — in the long-run, I say! — success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”

Ignore the airy words of the commencement speaker, which tell you to “follow your passions,” “be true to yourself,” and “trust your inner voice.” Try quieting your Adam 1 side, and giving a voice to your Adam 2. Start asking yourself the “vocation” questions, rather than the “career” questions. Take Viktor Frankl’s advice and focus on dedicating yourself to a cause greater than yourself, rather than aiming at success. Most of all, be patient. Finding a vocation worth your blood, sweat, and tears takes time.

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