The Chastening of Careerists (Part 1)

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Bryan Dix and Jason Mahn at NetVUE gathering in June 2018

I had the good fortune to present at a regional NetVUE gathering here at Augustana College (Rock Island, IL) earlier this summer alongside Bryan J. Dik, professor at Colorado State University, leading researcher in “vocational psychology,” and co-author (with Ryan Duffy) of Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work. I have learned a great deal from the book, from Bryan’s presentation, and from our dinner conversation the night before. Most helpful is his insistence that, just as important as choosing and preparing for a relevant vocation—indeed, maybe more important—is a person’s ongoing work of crafting whatever job or career she or he currently holds into more and more of a calling. In other words, the work of living a calling goes far beyond the vocational discernment and decisions of college students. The initial selection of a career that draws on one’s gifts and passions and which contributes to the needs of the community is certainly important. And of course many of us (actually most of us) will need to reassess our chosen careers, repurpose, retool, “reinvent ourselves.” But even those of us on traditional career paths with relatively linear trajectories (tenured professors may be some of the few remaining!) can and should still find new ways to make meaning, forge purpose, and serve others through our work.

I am convinced that my colleagues and I would find more meaning, be more effective, and be, well, happier, were we to more intentionally, strategically, and regularly make our careers into callings. Still, I find myself wanting to offer a word of caution about the work of forging a career into a vocation.

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Templeton Press, 2013

Dik and Duffy write of the important work of “Job Crafting”; they offer practical suggestions for turning paid work into life-giving callings; and they tell compelling stories of those thusly living out their callings. According to them, “a calling is not only a career path that a person chooses to pursue, but that a person creates and cultivates. Even people who may not have landed in their ideal career can nevertheless craft or reframe their work, transforming it into a calling” (14).

I’ll try to get at my concern with two sets of related rhetorical questions, each of which intentionally overstates the matter.

First, If I were to fully and without remainder make my career into a calling, would that collapse the difference between them? Would calling and career become synonyms, such that the first no longer transcends and troubles the second?

Second: If it is I who makes meaning, and forges a path, and craftsa job, and even serves others through my work (borrowing from the titles of chapters 4, 6, 7 and 5 respectively of Make Your Job a Calling) does this mean that a calling is something that I always actively invent and employ, rather than hear and respond to? Can meaning, purpose, and service fall fully within my control without turning them into something they’re not?

Dik and Duffy are much too wise to collapse calling into career or to confine either within the plans and commands of a person. They write of the never-ending work of cultivating a calling in one’s career. Indeed, one of the more telling statistics from their research is the strong positive correlation between already having a sense of calling and the simultaneous search for one; that many people both have and continue to search for their vocations shows just how self-evolving and cyclical the entire process is. What is more, for all their stress on the active role a person must play in living her or his vocation, they rightfully resist the self-actualization and self-fulfillment models that monopolize many modern understandings of vocation.

But the related risks remain. I will address the first (the risk of conflating calling and career) here, and then comment on the risk of overemphasizing one’s own agency in a forthcoming post.

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Island Press, 2004

While callings can be found within careers (and elsewhere), the abiding differences between them matter. No one has articulated these differences more starkly than the environmentalist writer and teacher, David W. Orr. In his essay evocatively entitled, “The Dangers of Education,” (part of the collection Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect), Orr compares the career of Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments, with the calling of Aldo Leopold, whose “land ethic” became the foundation for the contemporary ecological movement. Both grew up in the middle years of the twentieth century. Both had the advantages of good upbringings and fine educations. Both had “successful” careers if one judges by criteria internal to their respective fields.

Yet, without a felt claim or call or imposed limit outside of himself and his gainful employment—one that might have “bridled” or “channeled” his ambition—Speer had a career without a calling and so was left morally adrift (Orr 22). Leopold, by contrast, continually opened himself to the summons of voices other than his own (especially those of land itself). Thus and only thus did he live out his calling. Orr summarizes with this:

From the lives of Speer and Leopold, what can he said about the dangers of formal education or schooling? The first and overriding danger is that it will encourage young people to find careers before they find a decent calling. A career is a job, a way to earn one’s keep, a way to build a long resume, a ticket to somewhere else. For upwardly mobile professionals, a career is too often a way to support a “lifestyle” by which one takes more than one gives back. In contrast, a calling has to do with one’s larger purpose, personhood, deepest values, and the gift one wishes to give the world. A calling is about the use one makes of a career. A career is about specific aptitudes; a calling is about purpose. (22, emphasis added)

And then one more concluding comment:

A career can always be found in a calling, but a calling cannot easily be found in a career. (22)

While I take Orr’s point, I wouldn’t say that a career can alwaysbe found in a calling. Certainly there are plenty of people for whom paid work remains incidental to their after hour vocations. Certainly, too, there are many students and unemployed or retired persons with a strong sense of calling. But Orr’s more primary claim is the second one: a calling cannot easilybe found in a career. This is because successful careers are often fanned and fueled by personal ambition, while a calling is that which “bridles” or “channels” ambition. For all of Dik’s good work of helping people line up their careers with their callings, we also need Orr’s work of keeping the two apart in order that the latter keep the former in check. Without a calling, those with careers can and often do become careerists.

The rapidly changing nature of work heightens the risk of collapsing calling into career and career into careerism. Dik and Duffy describe what they call the new age of employee “free agency,” where career trajectories are highly individualized and what they call, following Douglas T. Hall,  “protean”—that is, careers “in which the person, not the organization, is in charge, the core values are freedom and growth, and the main success criteria are subjective” (217). Here again, Dik and Duffy emphasize the positive (they’re positive psychologists, after all!). While a protean career is not the same as a calling, it can become one when combined with a sense of purpose and leveraged for the common good.  But the danger, I think, is that the more self-inventive “free agents” can and must become, the more closed-off they will become to the unbidden claims and calls.  (For a more theological account of these ideas, see my essay, “Called to the Unbidden: Saving Vocation from the Marketplace”).

Preventing fluid and highly-customizable careers from closing in upon themselves, from becoming their own final end, is never easily done, and the consequences are considerable. One need not turn to Hitler’s Minister of Armaments to confirm this. When honest with myself, I know that much of my own work, even of my good work, springs from personal ambition as much as from a sense of being called from without. There needs to be a healthy distinction between the two. Our careers need chastening—a “work” (or gift?), it would seem, that goes beyond anything we can wholly do for ourselves. I’ll return to this second point in a subsequent post.

Jason Mahn is an Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 

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