At Work

Recognizing the Distinction Between Vocation, Occupation, Work & Calling

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Vocation, work, occupation, and calling are related terms that refer to what we do with our lives, each from a slightly different angle. Work and occupation are day-to-day tasks, while vocation and calling are more broadly associated with what we contribute to our families, communities, and the world, the purpose for which we are on this earth. It can take a lifetime to understand the personal significance of these terms.

When I was younger, I had no concept of vocation or calling, however, I did grasp the essence of work. Chores around the house, part-time jobs while in school, deciding on a career to pursue in college, and attaining a job in my chosen career taught me the importance of work. But I didn’t grasp the meaning of vocation until much later.

Life is More Than Labor

In contrast, Steven Garber began to understand vocation at an early age, as he describes in his book The Seamless Life: A Tapestry of Love & Learning, Worship & Work. In the essay, “Learning About Vocation,” Garber describes one of many summers he spent with his grandfather, a cattle farmer in Gallup, New Mexico. Garber writes, “Watching him live his life first awakened me to the reality that life was more than labor, that vocation was more than occupation—but also that the work we do matters, matters very much” (p. 37).

Ten-year-old Garber had an opportunity to observe his grandfather at work, see how he interacted with people, and notice the respect with which co-workers treated his grandfather. It awakened in him the concept of vocation as distinct from work. His grandfather worked as a cattle rancher, and he never spoke about his vocation—if he even understood the concept—but he did live “a coherent life, in which what he believed about God and the world was worked out in the way he lived in the world” (p. 39). 

My dad was in sales, and occasionally he would stop at a business while driving me or my family somewhere. I don’t ever remember thinking that I would like to go in to see what my dad did every day or to observe how he interacted with the folks at that business. I wish I would have. All I knew was that he was in sales, but what that actually meant was unclear, at best. And the concept of vocation was not even in the picture. 

Vocation is More Than Occupation

In a different essay in the same book, “Coherence and Continuity Matter,” Garber writes, “We long for what we do to grow out of who we are, for our occupation(s) to be rooted in our vocation. That is the hope of everyone’s heart” (p. 44). I agree, but we don’t understand vocation at the age when we’re deciding on an occupation. It seems this is a cyclical process. Working gives us insight into our vocation, which may then direct us to adjust our occupations, which gives us further insight into the longings of our hearts. Repeat.

When I was a career advisor for a local high school, I encouraged students to experience the careers they were dreaming about, to attend field trips arranged for that purpose or to visit someone they knew in the field. I took students to O’Hare International Airport to give them a feel for what it would be like to be an airplane mechanic, to a courthouse to observe legal cases being tried, and to an insurance company where they were given presentations of how the insurance business worked. 

I also encouraged internships, which gave students the opportunity to participate in the work that they were considering. For some students, an internship ruled out a potential career, but for others, it reinforced their plans. 

It’s difficult to put day-to-day work together with a vocation or calling. I can’t say that those experiences clarified the idea of vocation for the students, but they did give them the opportunity to see the reality of what a career would be like, which was one step closer to understanding what they would do with their expanding knowledge. 

Garber’s definition of vocation is, “…the longer, deeper story of someone’s life, our longings and our choices and our passions that run through life like a deep river…” (p. 43). High school students are just beginning to recognize their longings, and their career choices and experiences will either affirm those passions or send them in a different direction. For many, it takes a lifetime. 

Vocational Mentor

Discussing career plans with someone who knows you well and who better understands the concept of vocation, like a parent, grandparent, or trusted family friend, is invaluable for a young person. If you are someone searching for a career that fits your skills, passions, and interests, spend some time with a mentor, go to work with them, observe how they are treated and how they treat others. You might be surprised at what you learn. 

Those of us who are parents or grandparents or just farther along in the journey of life, keep your eyes open for interest in your careers, talk honestly about your experiences, and if the opportunity presents itself, invite a student to visit your workplace. If there isn’t a match between what you do and the young person’s interests, connect them with a trusted friend who will offer them an inside view of a different career. That insight can lead to valuable questions about vocation.

How We Spend Our Lives

God has given each of us a vocation, and even before we realize it, we are searching for the longer, deeper story that runs like a deep river through our lives. Work, vocation, calling, and occupation are closely related, for as Annie Dillard said in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” 

It has taken me quite a while to understand my God-given vocation. Whether we know it yet or not, how we spend our days is how we will spend our lives, so begin to consider your vocation today, if you haven’t already, and see where God takes you.

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