Career v. Calling: What's the difference?

career-vs-calling Lately I've been talking and thinking a great deal about my career -- where I am now, where I'd like to be in a year or five years, and what kind of work best suits my interests and skills. I've explored several different paths in the marketing, communications, development and design worlds, at a variety of nonprofits, and it's becoming hard to figure out where I should and want to go next. It's also continually challenging to navigate the ever-changing job market, where introductions now trump resumes and job applications feel like like they're drops of water disappearing in the online abyss.

I've also noticed I've gotten in a habit of consuming instead of creating, of being busy in a way that feels a little depleting rather than energizing, of checking things off my to-do list rather than cultivating time for what inspires me. My friend Laura calls this the hamster wheel of the Internet, and writes about it eloquently here, and I could not agree more. It's like I have my job, and then I have all the other things I'm doing and thinking about doing and having all the feels about doing. The former is a given for me; the latter emphasis on vocation seems a bit like a luxury.

Here's what I'm wondering: what's the difference between a career and a calling?

passion calling

In your twenties, there's this weird dichotomy. You're essentially given a permission slip to try it all on: jobs, cities, lovers, friends, activities. I can't tell you how many times someone has said to me, "Well, it's early in your career, you'll figure it out." Or, "Well, you've got plenty of time to get married and have kids, don't sweat it." (HAHA JUST KIDDING, if you're a woman between ages 20-30 and you're not dying to pop out a baby/buy a house/get a ring on that finger, people think you're weird. It's fucking annoying, but more on that another time.)

You're also expected to know what you want in all of those arenas, and to be actively moving toward it. As you get older, society is less and less forgiving of those who aren't sure, and that journey of "figuring it out" can feel really stressful and fraught with anxiety. I often find myself asking, "Am I trying on the right things? Did I miss a step? Should I say yes to this opportunity? If I keep feeling a No in this area, does that mean I should leave it alone? What should I leave behind and what should I return to?" And so on.

The illusion of perfection and confident set forth via social media doesn't help. Other people's lives look shiny and together and like they make sense. I know that isn't always true, but it's hard to remember that fact when you're struggling to articulate your own vision. I don't think these people have it all figured out, whatever that means, but what I don't hear is conversation about the not knowing, the not being sure. I hear about goals and successes and wins and confident elevator speeches, but I wonder about the process behind it all, the getting there, wherever "there" is for someone.

LinkedIn is kind of cool for this reason, because if I notice someone in a role I'd potentially like to have, I can sometimes see a little bit about where they came from. Nowadays, people don't "find" a career and arrive at it to stay forever fulfilled. There are new versions of this model -- people who have taken an entry level job someplace and worked their way up, or people who stay in roles longer than 1-3 years for various reasons -- but that's less of the norm and more of the exception. More and more, I encounter people who are indeed jumping from job to job, either for money or experience or excitement or just because.

I've done the same. At 28, I'm in my fourth "real" job. I don't advocate this approach to others, but it's also been very realistic for me. I graduated college with what some might call super useful, lucrative degrees -- english and political science -- and then I went on to get a master's in an even MORE useful, lucrative field -- religion and literature. Along the way, I worked at an urban church, a chamber of commerce, a foundation and a healthcare organization. I picked up side gigs teaching yoga, teaching writing at a community college, freelance writing about technology and entrepreneurs and more. I'm proficient in graphic design, event marketing, fundraising communications, project management, social media marketing, and I'm excellent at writing and editing and content strategy.

But I'm not just one of those things. This is a little bit of a problem, because I keep feeling like I need to pick a track and stick with it for my "career," as well as absolutely LOVE whatever it is I've picked. And I don't really know what I should pick, if I should pick something in general, yet I have the nagging sense that I'm not in the right place doing the right work.

You've heard these common threads in career advice. "Follow your passion." "Think about what you liked to do as a kid; that's probably what you should be doing with your life." "Your work shouldn't feel like work."

career v calling 2

I take real issue with these sentiments for a few reasons and pretty much want to call bullshit every time I read or hear about it, because:

  1. Passions change.
  2. Kids don't have the same constraints and responsibilities as adults.
  3. Work is called work for a reason.

I know, I sound super jaded. I get what people are trying to say with these phrases: don't waste your life in a job that you hate, do something that interests you and makes a difference in the world, bring your unique voice to the table.

I mean, as a kid I made up entire lives (pre-Facebook profiles, really) for my Beanie Babies, and then developed mini soap opera storylines for them. I read voraciously and felt a ridiculous sense of pride at spelling words correctly and winning free mini pizzas at Pizza Hut for checking books off my to-read list. My best friend and I spent all of recess every day in fifth grade playing a game called Twins, where we pretended we were twins (surprise!) and essentially talked about what we looked like, what we wore, who our friends were, what our families were like, etc. We honestly spent more time setting up this Twin story than actually being the Twins, but no matter...

In no particular order, I wanted to be a ballet dancer, a book publisher, singer, a writer, a nurse, a lawyer, a teacher. I never wanted to be just one thing, but I also see the key threads that still exist today -- the desire to tell and make up stories for entertainment, the inkling to orchestrate communication for other people, the perfectionist tendencies to know as much as possible and get everything right. These qualities have inspired and benefited my career thus far, but I still think this emphasis on following one's passion is problematic.

Its problematic because it underscores the old model that posits the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I mean, do cleaning ladies and janitors grow up wanting to be cleaning ladies and janitors? Did truck drivers play with trucks as kids? Are CEOs passionate about change or making money? Does everyone who genuinely feels like they're on the right career path wake up feeling sunshine-y every morning? (This gets into a political/economic discussion about the job industry in general, but you get what I mean.)

For example, my dad just retired as a police officer and detective after 27 years of work in the same city at the same department. He was excellent at his job, but he didn't grow up wanting to be a cop; it's just how it worked out. He was newly married with a baby and needed a job, so he got his associate's degree in law enforcement, heard about a job in southern Illinois, applied, took it, and they moved. There was no debate about whether or not police work would "fulfill" him, or if it was his "passion," or if it was the "right" thing to explore. Some of those things came along the way, but that's not where he started. And I think that's true for a lot of people.

So why do those terms dominate today's conversation about work? Is this a good thing? What's the difference between a career and a calling?

To me, career so far is what I've been doing -- accepting jobs at various organizations to strengthen skills and get experience. Calling feels like something different, something much harder to land on. I feel called to write my own stories and help others write their stories, but those things don't pay for my student loans, you know? I'm passionate about writing, but some days, it totally sucks and it's hard and I think I should probably never write another word again; aka, it's work.

Lots of questions, lots of words on this topic today. I'd love to know what you think -- what's your current career, and does it align with your calling? Do you even believe in feeling "called" to something, and if so, what is it? Is a career different from a calling in your mind, or are these just semantics?