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Vocation, Genius, Career and Calling.

July 6, 2014

The soul of work and the work of the soul.

What should you do with your life? What should you study in college? What job should you take? What career should you develop? How should you make a living?

These are perennial questions. And they are due for re-appraisal in light of the economic difficulties of the past few years (which I believe are really a harbinger of a fundamental restructuring in the United States’ economy and not a “simple” correction.) Lately, there has been increased scrutiny of the idea of “doing what you love,” which has been a staple of privileged, progressive college and career advice since at least the 1970’s when Joseph Campbell admonished his students to “follow their bliss.” More recently Steve Jobs famously said “Do what you love and love what you do.” (Apparently Campbell was chagrined at the hedonistcally inflected interpretation of “following your bliss,”–  it was the 70’s after all — and wished he had said, “Follow your blisters.”) (Wikipedia)

Earlier this year, Miya Tokumitsu wrote critically and compellingly, in Slate, of the way this paradigmatic approach to finding and choosing work can distort our notions of how we make a living, how we are compensated for our labor, how we envision — or ignore — inequality, and contribute to our willingness to be economically exploited. Her critique and ire, were refreshing, bracing even, but ultimately misguided.

If you’re not pissed, you’re not paying attention.

No doubt, as one surveys the current economy, if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Decades of steady productivity increases have been answered with massive inequality, growing debt, stagnating or declining wages, and chronic under/unemployment. But Tokumitsu has confused domains. Because finding your calling (your “vocation”, from the Latin vocai) is a matter of soul. Making a living is a matter of economy and the political wills that shape it. That we may be exploited, or exploiters, if we do what we love is of course true, but that exploitation is not a function of our efforts — and it is a tremendous effort — to seek and find vocation,

Me, seeking and finding vocation.

but a function of our unwillingness to fight for a just economy. Indeed there is an argument that because finding a vocation reduces existential fear, doubt and anomie, we may become less inclined to exploit others in the pursuit of our desires.

It may be a measure of the health, vitality, human-ness of an economy that the greatest numbers of people possible can make a living at their vocation. But there is no guarantee in any time that ones deepest gifts are the things that provide them bread and shelter.

“Know first who you are, then adorn yourself accordingly.”  (Epictetus)

So, these are two things. One: Knowing first who you are, searching ones depths, in the context of the fate/circumstance of one’s life and obeying (obedience, from the Latin, oboedre to hear or listen intently) the answers that are found, and setting about doing what you must do. As Parker Palmer describes in my-singlemost-photocopied-and-distributed-by-hand-to-students article Now I Become Myself (must read!): “…vocation does not mean scrambling towards some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of the true self I already possess…The deepest vocational question is not “What should I do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?”

This is the original meaning of the word “genius” which the Romans used to describe an inner sacred guide that inheres in each person, and is not just the province of an elect, priveleged few. Every person has a genius and must meet it. The wisdom traditions assert that the failure to do so is among the greatest possible failures on this particular whirl of the Merry-Go-Round. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (another bracing text), Jesus proclaims, “That which you have will save you if you bring it forth from yourselves. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  Then Two: Adorn yourself accordingly…

I have counseled, advised and mentored hundreds of college students over the past 15 years. I have noticed a few changes in that time. I have always advised young people to figure out what they love and what their gifts and passions are. The real difference is that in the past, when the economy was more generous, I didn’t have to make such a fine point of helping them distinguish their vocation from their living. I had a talk that was reserved for artists and writers, that said: “Do this only if you must.” Now I give that talk to people thinking about teaching (for a couple reasons) and seeking any kind of advanced degree: Law, Medicine, PhDs in any field, and Vet School. The economy is not vibrant enough to support everybody who is studying these – and many other – things and young people need to know that. I still advise people to follow their calling because we must. And because if they do, in the words of Joseph Campbell again, “our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” This rapture is almost entirely absent in people after the age of seven or so. It is a devastating cancer in our culture. This sense of harmonic resonance between the inner truth and the outer reality creates an alive, vibrant person. And that, is not only the best way to live life, but is among other things, a highly sought after and attractive quality that is highly correlated with success — and employment.

Finally, we must hope that some people whose gift is awakening an increasingly soporific, solipsistic populace will emerge shortly and begin to speak truth to power, because that is a conversation, a calling even, whose time is evermore overdue.

  1. Bep permalink

    Hi Michael…Congrats on your site and your work. Thanks for the link to the article “Now I Become Myself” by Parker Palmer. Just a few days before I read this-I had a crystal clear illumination of how not claiming ownership of my life/work orchestrates only reactionary roles for everyone involved in my play and does not allow anyone to perform authentically. Puke, yuck and good riddance…I am writing a new script. lol..
    Panache Desai says that nature gives us direct metaphors only rarely. As with your tree chopping, I find nature always gives me plenty of direct metaphors, perhaps more than I can grasp all at one time. It’s quite exciting to be aware of how supported we are by the Gods and Goddesses of nature and the natural elements..
    Good luck on your journey of a broken heart…I’ve found such peace through mine.

    Thanx for the late night link to the clearly worded expression of my latest ephiany!

    All my best,


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