The difference between your job and your calling

I don’t understand why it happens, but it does.

People ask me for career advice. All the time. Even people who make a lot more money than I do. Especially, it seems, people who make a lot more money than I do.

Which, I think, is why they are drawn to me. I am obviously not making a lot of money, yet seem to like my job and career, despite it being very hard. So several times a month, I am sitting across the table at a coffee shop, talking to someone about vocation. Their future. What they want to be when they grow up.

They tell me about their dreams of changing the world. How they don’t feel they are being useful in their current situation. How they just go through the motions, and feel like they are committing suicide on the installment plan.

Or they are still in college or grad school, and the job offers they are getting don’t look like what they envisioned when they picked this major, and they don’t want to give up their dreams.

So they read something I wrote, or I speak at their church or college or a friend recommends they call me, and we end up in that coffee shop. It turns out,  I know a little bit about deciding to change.

I listen to them. I’m good at listening. I hear their stories, their desires, their aches. I hear their frustrations and fears. I hear them give voice to the desire to change the world, while also having to pay bills and feed their families. I listen to all of that.

And then I tell them: You need to find a job, a calling and a passion. 

First, some definitions:

A job is something you do for which you get money in return. The sole purpose of a job is to pay your bills. You may derive other benefits from a job, but that just means you are lucky.

A calling is what you feel moved to do in the world. Your concern for homelessness, or inner-city children, or the urban family, or native plants or ecological restoration. A calling is, to paraphrase Buechner, the intersection of your yearning and the world’s need.

A passion, for our purposes, is something not related to the first two things that fills you, that moves you, that you can work on to replenish your emptiness and that you look forward to. Maybe it’s painting, or kayaking, or running, or stamp collecting. Whatever. It should be something you can lose yourself in that brings you happiness.

Sitting in that coffee shop, I tell them about getting a job, a calling and a passion. I tell them that their unhappiness comes from wanting to get all three of those things from the same place. That rarely happens. In fact, I argue, it probably shouldn’t happen.

I am one of the fortunate folks that, at this exact point in time, I have a job that intersects my calling. But that is very rare – both in the world and in my life. For most of the last nine years I have been doing this work, I have had at least one other job to help pay the bills.

I worked as a freelance writer. I sat at the desk overnight at a 24 hour gym. I sold hot dogs outside a gay bar and across the street from a hardcore porn video shop. I built websites. I speak to groups. All of those were jobs. The only thing I asked from them was that they provide income.

Meanwhile, I have worked tirelessly to build communities where people who were experiencing homelessness could be welcomed, loved and engaged. Places where the stranger could enter and become a friend, where people could just be, where people who were very different from each other could sit across from each other and see those differences become less important.  That is my calling. It is what I feel like I was born to do, and I am really good at it, and it is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

It also pays for crap.

When I am not doing either of those two things, I am either reading or working in my garden. Both of those things are things that replenish me, that I derive great joy from, that I look forward to. They are more than hobbies, they are passions. 

Or, to use another example, I have a friend who is an associate pastor for a huge church in the deep south, where one of her duties is to be in charge of the high school ministry. That is her job – it pays her bills. She has devoted her life to helping teenagers connect with each other, God and their communities. That is her calling – what she feels she was meant to do in the world. And she runs marathons. That is her passion – it keeps her motivated and feeling alive.

Breaking it down to those three categories has several immediate benefits.

  • It takes a lot of pressure off of you to find that perfect job. Just go make some money, yo.
  • It gives you time to flesh out your calling and to find your passion. I was 35 before I figured out what my calling even was.
  • It increases the odds you can do your calling for a lifetime. People in full-time callings burn out at super-high rates. If you burn out, the world isn’t going to get better. It needs to get better.
  • You may, like my friend above, find a job that allows you to focus on your calling. But if you don’t, it isn’t the end of the world.
  • Jobs change. Your identity probably shouldn’t be tied up in your job. Better it be tied up in your calling.
  • By accepting that your passion is a support system for your life, it makes you feel less guilty about losing yourself in it.

If you ask me to coffee because you have vocation concerns, that is what I am going to tell you. Get a job, a calling and a passion.

But you can still ask me out for coffee. Especially if you are paying for it.

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