Vocation, Career, and Job

Vocation. Career. Job.

Three different things that so often seem to overlap in our minds. However, when we let them overlap, we lose something valuable in the translation.

A job is simply any situation where you are paid in exchange for your labor. Nothing more, nothing less. Warren Buffett has a job, as does the cashier down at the local McDonalds.

A career is a sequence of jobs in a similar field that ideally lead to promotion within that field. I’ve had two careers in my life – The Simple Dollar is my second career.

A vocation is what you were born to do. It’s that point where your skills, talents, and interests intersect and you’re most able to change the world around you. Your vocation and career might overlap – or they might not.

Why the distinctions? I think we illustrate them best when we look at them pairwise.

Job versus career So often, we merely look at jobs as pieces of a career. When we move on from our current job, we simply look for the next step in our career path – or we look for the first step in a new career path, right?

Actually, neither one has to be true. A job is nothing more than a way to put income into your pocket. It only becomes part of your career if you choose to put that extra value in there.

Quite often, when people are in desperate need of income and are out there searching for work, they are so locked into continuing their career that they fail to look for a job. You can have a job without it being the continuation of your career. Instead, it can merely be the source of income while you search for that next career step.

Job versus vocation A job is nothing more than a way to fund a vocation.

One of my favorite images in that regard comes in the form of one of my closest friends in college. He had a job as a night cashier at a gas station near campus, where he worked from 10:30 PM to 7:30 AM about four nights a week.

At first, I thought this was terrible. It was just a dead-end job, and he seemed to be giving up so much of his college freedom for it. I decided to start popping in every once in a while to see how he was doing.

Every time I visited him, he wasn’t sitting behind the counter bemoaning his situation. Instead, he usually had a sketchbook with him and a set of colored pencils of various kinds. He would spend hours simply making sketches of the items on display there, mastering his skills of shading and perspective.

He’s now in graphic design, and I’d say that his time in the gas station was merely a job, a job that he recognized existed solely to enable his vocation.

Career versus vocation Right now, my career path is that of a high-throughput writer. I’m a blogger who posts two lengthy articles a day, plus freelance work, plus some independent projects. Those jobs all add up to more jobs in that career path.

My vocation, however, has only vaguely to do with what I’m doing today. My vocation is writing, but my career is only one particular flavor of that. There are many other areas of writing that I wish to explore as time moves on. I am drawn, with every ounce of my being, to someday write carefully crafted works of fiction and nonfiction. Not 5,000 word days where I’m trying to communicate several ideas as quickly as possible. Instead, more careful, nuanced, researched writing.

My career is connected to my vocation only in that it’s giving me the skills I need to explore that vocation more thoroughly. The career itself isn’t the end goal – it’s merely a piece in a much larger puzzle.

What does all of this really mean in terms of day-to-day choices? I think it boils down to asking yourself a few introspective questions.

First, how does my job actually play into my larger career goals? Many jobs certainly do lead to another career step. Some jobs do not. Know what you’re getting from that job beyond merely the paycheck – and understand what you’re willing to give in exchange for that.

Second, is my job enabling me to build towards my vocation? If it is, then use it. Use every element of your current job that you can to help you build a path into your vocation. If it’s not, then it’s just a way to put some money in your pocket as you seek a better result.

Third, is my career actually what I was meant to do? I can’t tell you the number of people that write to me when they’ve suddenly realized that their career isn’t at all what they want to be doing with their lives. The sooner you realize that, the better, because it gives you the time you need to begin thinking of your current job as merely a job rather than a career element. A job is something you use to move along in your vocation, whether it’s solely because of the income or whether other resources are at work in that equation.

One final thought: regardless of what you’re doing right now at your job, you can be working towards your vocation or building towards your next career step. In either case, if you want something great in your future, you’ve got to work for it, whether it’s in the form of hitting a home run in your work performance so you can move ahead or utilizing the resources of your job to help you build up the things you need for your vocation.

What’s it going to be? Either way you go, now’s the time to stand up and start fighting for your future.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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