Let me start with an inescapable reality: the American workplace is changing. Not just for those of us nearing retirement—but for those in midcareer and new hires as well. There’s a harsh and dramatic shift under way, from expected security to an unpredictable volatility. Technology is rendering entire careers extinct, and global competition is forcing companies to shed workers and cut costs to the bone.
Most of us were raised to think that all we needed to achieve success and security was to finish school, get a job with the right company, put in 35 years or so, and wait for the proverbial gold watch. But those days are over, never to return. In today’s volatile workplace, the average job lasts a mere 3.2 years. Companies are dismantling pension plans, cutting health insurance benefits, and replacing the gold watch with a pink slip. Which leads to a second inescapable reality: in a workplace where jobs come and go like feathers in the breeze, we must have a sense of continuity in our lives that goes far beyond our daily job. To be continually focused on a job as the source for meaning and identity is ultimately frustrating. A job is simply one tool for a successful life.
As a career and life coach and the host of a weekly radio show, I hear from listeners desiring more focused, balanced, and truly successful lives as they mature in age and life experience. More and more, people are coming to me with questions regarding surprising, often unwelcome changes in the workplace. A few months ago I received a letter from a woman in Detroit, who wrote:
We desperately need your advice, if possible.... My husband has been offered a buyout from General Motors to leave a job that he really hates! We just returned from North Carolina, where we looked into buying a business. We found a suitable place, and I am very excited, but he is reluctant to leave a decent-paying job with decent benefits.… Any advice?? By the way, he has to make his decision by May 19th! His last day to work for GM would then be July 1st, and he would receive $140,000, before taxes, four weeks later.
Thanks for your help.
Author, artist, and poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.” So, what role has work been serving for this gentleman? Is it “love made visible”? Or is it nothing but a method of paying the bills? What would you do in this situation? This person is in a job “that he really hates” and has an opportunity to be paid $140,000 to leave? My advice: Take the money immediately before the opportunity goes away. What a privilege to be allowed to escape a job that provides little beyond a paycheck, and to be given the start-up capital for a new business—and a new season in life. In our desire to be responsible or practical, we often deprive ourselves of the chance to embrace our talents and gifts, to recognize our visions, dreams, and passions. Being in a job you hate never makes sense as a long-term plan. And to already have a clear plan about a business that he would enjoy means this gentleman is not only leaving unfulfilling work—he is moving toward work that is worthwhile and meaningful.
Ask yourself: How do you view your work? Is it an expression of your deepest passions, or is it simply a necessary evil that produces a paycheck? How have you responded to those times of unexpected change in your life—did you welcome the opportunity to take a fresh look at where you are and where you’re going? Now hold on to that thought. Could your wisdom and experience lead to more fulfilling work that embraces and expands your talents and passions?
Let me introduce an image that should give you confidence to pursue that fulfillment. Picture a ladder with three steps: the top step represents your Vocation; the middle step is your Career; on the very bottom is your Job. Rather than seeing these as equal terms, we need to understand the distinctions.
Vocation is the biggest concept. This incorporates your purpose, your mission, and your calling. It’s certainly the most profound of the terms. It comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning “to call.” Your vocation is what you’re doing in life that makes a difference. It’s something unique to you alone, and it will define your legacy. This is going to be your best vehicle for fulfillment, a sense of peace, and accomplishment. Your vocation is the beacon in your life that keeps you headed in the right direction even when you are being tossed around by fate.
As novelist and theologian Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Ask yourself: What is the world hungering for right now? How can you use your unique skills and talents to satisfy that hunger?
Career is a subset of vocation. My dictionary offers, as one of its definitions, “To run or move at full speed. To rush wildly.” In other words, you can go around and around really fast for a long time and never get anywhere other than where you’ve been. That’s why, in today’s work environment, even professionals with careers such as physician, attorney, CPA, dentist, or engineer may choose to get off the expected track and select another career. A career is a line of work, but it’s not necessarily your calling, your vocation. If you understand your calling, you can have different careers along the way without redirecting your life’s path. For example, if you have a desire to help others recognize and preserve beauty in the world, you could fully embrace that as a landscaper, a teacher, an author, a politician, a tour guide, a construction worker, or a volunteer at your local park.
Job is the smallest of the three concepts, and the least significant. This most often decribes how we earn a living and perhaps what we are currently doing between 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M. The dictionary defines job as “a lump portion, a task or a duty.” With this framing, you may recognize opportunities to fulfill your calling outside of your job and be grateful for the means you currently have for producing income. But the pressure is off—jobs will come and go. Changing, losing, or walking away from a particular job should never change your vocation. Your vocation provides a sense of continuity even if you need to find a new daily grind.
My brother retired in 2004 after teaching in a rural elementary school for 30 years. He never made more than a meager teacher’s income, and invested his life in those children coming through his classroom each year. In 1981, however, he had walked past an abandoned Boy Scout campground just down the road from his little farm. He got a vision of having a place where kids could come for camp experiences and learn about God and nature. He put down a $100 deposit and then went to work to rally support to purchase the property. Three years later he was able to complete the $130,000 transaction—which included 91 acres, a lodge, an Olympic-size swimming pool, four cabins, and a three-bedroom manager’s house. In the years since then, Camp Buckeye has given 8,000 kids a rich summer encounter that for many has been a foundational building block for a healthy transition into adulthood. Obviously this camp was an expression of my brother’s vocation, his calling. When he “retired,” he left his job and his career but certainly not his vocation.
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung taught that there are two major seasons in our lives. He said the primary concern of the first season is biological and social: having children, making a living, perhaps acquiring money and social position. In doing this, you may have single-mindedly worked in a job or a series of jobs that may, in fact, have numbed you to that inner voice of your original calling.
But then we’re ready for the second, and more important, season. Jung says “the crisis of mid-life can serve to ‘wake up’ this dreaming undiscovered Self and the rest of life can provide the opportunity for its development.”
We tend to attach an unrealistic meaning to and become too narrowly focused on our jobs. Thus, if the job disappears, the immediate response can be that of diminished self-worth and questioned identity. A person without a “job” is assumed to be living a life on hold. People struggle with these inevitable transitions—and may hide out to keep friends or neighbors from knowing the truth. If we have no identity apart from our jobs, we are truly vulnerable.
If we are paying attention, however, times of change can wake us up to our dreams and a calling that may be yet unfulfilled. Life experience is a wonderful teacher and clarifier. You may find that the retirement you are facing or the job loss you’ve experienced has been the jolt to reawaken those early dreams and passions. Transitioning from a full career to the next season in your life may be just the opportunity to fully engage in your calling. It may be the first time you’ve ever had the freedom to allow that calling to blossom. Rather than being in a diminishing time of your life, you may now be ready—free from the responsibilities of raising children and free from the daily pressures of paying the mortgage—to be more productive and fulfilled than ever before.
Langston Hughes was a poet, novelist, and playwright. Many of his poems, written in rhythmical language, have been set to music. They were meant, Hughes wrote, “to be read aloud, crooned, shouted, recited and sung.” Why don’t you try shouting these lines of his? Perhaps you’re at the beginning of a new season in your life. Go ahead!
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Nationally recognized radio host and life coach Dan Miller is the author of 48 Days to the Work You Love (B&H Publishing Group, 2005). His latest book, No More Mondays (Random House), will be published in January.
“Dreams” copyright © 1994 by the estate of Langston Hughes, from the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad with David Roessel, Associate Editor. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.