Job, Career or Vocation?

I’ve had jobs – and probably you have too – that were only about doing something for someone else in order to get paid. I have some great stories from some of those jobs (especially summer jobs during undergrad years). But when I have had jobs in my life, time off was critical – from milking every coffee break to downtime on the weekends to vacation time.

I’ve had career stops when I was truly a careerist. In those times in my life a lot of what I was involved in was not as much about the content of the tasks (though I did like a lot of what I did), but more about how far I could get up the ladder and how fast. It was about advancement. It was about status. I may not have called it that at the time, but upon reflection that is a lot of what was driving me at that time. In careerist mode, I worked loads of hours above and beyond what I was required to do because I wanted people to see my drive and pursuit. I was in work early and out later than most. I became frustrated when I couldn’t see a clear pathway to the next rung on the ladder up or when my ideas stopped getting traction or when I sensed competition from other careerists.

Since late 2009 I have been in vocation mode. The difference? I felt a calling…a summons of sort to do the sort of work I am doing now. From my career years to the present I have been heavily immersed in matters of homelessness, housing, social policy and leadership development. I don’t particularly love the title “consultant”, but my consulting years I think are the ones where I have had the broadest reach in making a lasting difference across the most lives. My love and passion in the vocation mode is the work itself. It has nothing to do with status or money. At all.

While I was in careerist mode, getting a raise with each advancement in my career was the reward. There was a value that could be attached to the status. Reaching six figures was a moment I won’t soon forget. Now I don’t find myself motivated to do this work because of money. In a perfect world, I would get to do all the things I do for free and have neither mortgage nor other family financial obligations to worry about, nor would any of the staff of OrgCode have to worry about their finances. So yes, having positive cash flow is necessary, but not a driver. We aren’t a typical for-profit business in that way. To me the measure of success in my vocation is not how much profit it yields me. There isn’t much about this job I don’t like, but a big one is negotiating prices for the work that we do.

I knew I was ready for the vocation stage of life when I started listening to my inner passion. I don’t really know how to describe this “listening to my inner passion”. I don’t mean to say there was a person talking to me or that I was hearing things that weren’t there. It was more of an emotional connection…the more I was engaged with people and projects that I thought could have a lasting impact on social issues in their community and it was aligned to my perspectives on justice, the more I wanted to be doing that thing.

Once I started listening the work became all about the passion. It was a passion to learn more. It was a passion to share more. It was a passion to have a larger impact on the world. It was a passion to make a difference.

As a trusted mentor to seven people currently in their journey towards awesomeness, I love the sessions I have with people about their feeling of vocation, career or job. I am in no way judging one as being better than the other because I think it is dependent on the needs and wants of each person. I feel a connection and kinship, though, with those that have found a vocation in life that brings them meaning beyond financial remuneration or status. For several people this has meant less pay but greater emotional rewards. For others finding the vocation has also meant finding a way to put other parts of life in balance. For others still it has meant similar trade-offs in life like mine (in order to follow my passion I end up spending less time in person that I love because so much travel is involved.) Those in the careerist mode have come to appreciate how their lives are made more productive if they embrace the role that people with a vocation play in their achievement and how people in job mode provide a foundation for their career to occur. And the one that I have in job mode has realized careerists and vocations people are not dismissive or judgmental of job mode folks.

The truth is, we need all three: jobs, careers and vocations. And a further truth is that many of us will experience two if not three of these throughout our life times. I consider it a moment of grace that in my late 30s I had the opportunity to listen to and follow my vocation. I don’t see myself turning back. This is truly whom I am and what I was called to do in this world. I am grateful and perhaps lucky, and meanwhile committed with fervour to embrace my vocation, open to wherever it takes me and however much money it loses me.

So what are you going to be when you grow up? I gave answers I thought people wanted to hear and little to what I really wanted. After grad school my answer to that question had more to do with careerist pursuits. Now, (well, as an aside I can tell you my father thinks it is possible I can get a real job after I get a haircut and take out my earrings so long as I hide all my tattoos) I can answer the question of what I want to be when I grow up with a lot more clarity: I want to be me; and, I want to be the best me possible making the biggest difference to complex social issues as I can. That is what I feel called to do. Whether or not I achieve that is what I should be measured against after my days on this earth are through.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong