Updated on 09.29.10

Vocation, Career, and Job

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Interested Reader says:

    I don’t think I really buy the vocation-career thing.

    I have to say one of the messages I got from this post is that this blog isn’t a really that important to you. Some day you will write carefully but right now it’s more about writing as quickly as possibly to ensure you can make money.

    Surely being discplined and writing well crafted, well thought out blog posts now is an important step towards your vocation.

  2. LOVE THIS! I could not agree more … It’s not that I’m not dedicated to my job, or that I don’t want to further my career. But, to what end? For me, there is indeed a “something else” I’m working toward, and I think about it every time I learn a new skill at my current job, or make a presentation that could advance my career. ALL of it is moving me toward my very special “something else.” It’s exciting really, to know that your job/career is not the be-all end-all; rather, it’s just part of the journey!

  3. Michael says:

    This is a very Lutheran post. :)

  4. valleycat1 says:

    In the county I live, in, right now more than 22% of the people would be more than happy to take your ‘just a job.’ Career, and certainly vocation, are way down the list of their priorities.

    And I agree with Interested Reader – the whole “what I was meant to do” idea is a pretty egotistical take on the world and a way of making yourself feel special. Not that different people have different talents & can contribute more in some fields than others.

  5. Gretchen says:

    What, exactly, is “a high-throughput writer? “

  6. Annie Jones says:

    A person needn’t have a job to have a vocation.

    Although there is value in what I do, I don’t get monetary compensation to be a homemaker, but I feel it is my vocation. There are jobs I could take and career choices I could make to further my vocation, but I’m very happy with the vocation all by itself.

  7. Yvette says:

    I see where the previous comments are coming from when they say, it seems like the blog is not important to you. But, I don’t think you meant to say anything negative in the post.

    It’s okay that while you produce a blog and have enjoyed/ benefited from it long it enough to build a large readership, you have additional aspirations. For some readers, it may be difficult to acknowledge that the writing style and medium they already know and like may not be your vocation.

    Only a minority of the people in the world will get to practice their vocation. Most of them will only do that for a portion (not their full) of their life/ career. If/ when you get your chance, grab it by the horns! Everyone should continue to push for his or her vocation. Whether it’s blogging or otherwise. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I or anyone else approves, it’s about your personal calling.

    Great post! I especially like the distinction between a career and a vocation. Sometimes I forget that those are not the same. (Honestly, a vocation doesn’t even have to pay.)

  8. Annie Jones says:

    My husband, on the other hand, has all three. He works for a company (that is his job), as an ironworker (that is his career), because he is happiest when he is building/constructing things (that is his vocation).

  9. Interested Reader says:

    I skimmed I didn’t see “throughput writer” what is that?

    I tried to find a definition and the only thing I could make sense of in this context was this definition:

    Productivity of a machine, procedure, process, or system over a unit period, expressed in a figure-of-merit or a term meaningful in the given context, such as output per hour, cash turnover, number of orders shipped.

    The way I’m reading that is you write in order to put out as many posts as you can to meet some kind of self imposed quota.

    Either that or this is like the “queues” instance in the previous post and you’ve some how mistaken two phrases. (I’m still not sure how you could mistake cues and queues.)

  10. I get what you are saying. It’s about growth and development into being a better you. I really appreciated the definitions because I totally agree that people should be willing to accept a job even if it doesn’t seemingly contribute directly to a career. Every job I have held I have learned something new and of value. My mother was a lifetime nurse and had a job cleaning motel rooms to provide for her family when they were on strike. She was an excellent sheet changer although that was not her vocation.

  11. Josh says:

    Interested Reader certainly isn’t an interesting reader. Nothing worse than losers who stalk blogs only to look for mistakes so they can be the first to point it out.

    Great post. Don’t listen to the morons who are reading too much into your intentions. Anyone with an ounce of common sense understands what you were saying.

  12. Bill says:

    I have the Office Space thing going on with my life. My ideal day would be to sit around doing nothing all day. Am I alone here?

  13. Annie Jones says:

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I couldn’t sit around doing nothing all day. I’m much too restless for that; for me, it would be a long, boring day. I have to do something …anything… productive. Of course, some days are more productive than others.

  14. Bill says:

    @#10 Bill
    I lost a job with 6 months severance once with a job offer to start anytime from day 1 to the whole 6 months. I thought I would enjoy just sitting around watching tv, drinking, playing golf and doing what ever I wanted.

    I lasted 3 weeks and was bored out of my mind and fearing for my liver and took the new job.

    I realize now that I like what I do and enjoy/need the mental challenges that come with it.

  15. Anitra says:

    @Annie Jones: On the other hand, I look at being a stay-at-home mom as my job, and perhaps a career, but definitely not my vocation. There is more to life than my kids and my home, and I plan to rejoin the workforce (someday).

  16. Mary says:

    Good post, today.

    I don’t think Trent is saying that he doesn’t give a crap about this blog because he’s just using it as a source of money or a stepping stone to better things. From what I have read, I find this blog to be filled with thoughtfully written posts on a broad spectrum of financial / life topics. It is clear that he isn’t just pulling something out of his ear at the last second every day.

    But in the bigger picture, I don’t think that seeing something as a job and not a vocation is grounds for slacking of or doing just the minimum to get by. Rather, it gives you the hope / perspective that you won’t always be doing this. This is really great especially if you hate your job right now, but are sort of stuck due to large bills of whatever nature.

    If someone used this “It’s just a job, not a career/vocation” line as a way of justifying lazy behavior, kick them in the pants and tell them to grow up. But if someone is using that mindset as a way of staying hopeful about the future and as mental tool to stay focused on doing the job well, despite it being just a job, because better things are coming, what’s wrong with that?

    Sorry for the long post, but I know that I, for one, very much dislike my job, quite often. It’s too high stress for me. But I know that this is just a job. Do I give 100%? You better believe it. Do I stay late to finish up a project on time? Definitely. Do I want to be doing this the rest of my life? Hell no. And reminding myself that this is, at the end of the day, just a source of $$ to pay the bills, is the only solace I can find some days in my job.

    I hope I haven’t offended anyone. Just my thoughts on it.

  17. Roberta says:

    Another aspect of the word “vocation” is that it is a calling, something that one feels compelled to respond to and follow. Does everyone have a vocation, however, I wonder? I’m not sure. I have a friend who worked 30 years in a job that she says was just a paycheck, and now she’s retired and having a great time taking yoga classes, traveling, going to the beach, and spending time with friends. It doesn’t seem to me that she has a vocation, and yet she is a joy to be with and seems to get a lot of pleasure out of life. It seems that she found “her future” by working all those years for it and is really enjoying it now.

    Of course, these things are fluid, too, right? A job can turn into a career, and either one can reveal itself to be a person’s vocation in some road-to-Damascus moment. It’s hard to generalize about these things because life situations vary.

  18. Annie Jones says:

    @Anitra: Yes, it can work that way, too, whether you’re talking about homemaking or any other vocation. One person’s vocation may be “just a job” for someone else.

    I think a good clue to knowing you’ve found your vocation is realizing you’d rather do “your work” for free than to do some other kind of work for pay.

  19. Sebi says:

    I have never seen things in this light but I couldn’t agree more with what you say in this post.
    Interested reader is a boring spammer.

  20. deRuiter says:

    “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.” This is entertaining. Sort of like popular, financially successful actors on blockbuster tv series who leave for “artistic” reasons, i. e. they leave to do Shakesapeare and sink into oblivion. Should there be a comma instead of a period after “nonfiction”? The following phrase isn’t a sentence, it’s a fragment. How about a little more “careful crafting” on your column as a way to get ready for your real career? Sometimes making a good living is important, even if it isn’t following one’s dreams. Our government is arranging our country’s economy so that a lot of Americans don’t have any job, let alone a career, and it will get worse. The higher taxes coming Jan 1., and more and more pointless regulation, are driving more and more jobs and businesses overseas, so fewer Americans will have jobs or career in the future. It just seems you ought to be a little more appreciative that you stumbled on a good idea at the right time, and siezed it, instead of acting like it is temporary hack work.

  21. Interested Reader says:

    Maybe I should should call myself — Could be More Interested Reader.

    I think Trent has some really good ideas and some interesting things to say. However, he just doesn’t take the time to develop a lot of the ideas. And I had been wondering why he doesn’t take some of his ideas and really develop them and expand on them.

    So this post cleared up that confusion. Quality on this blog is not a priority it’s all about the quantity.

  22. Jenn says:

    Nice post, Trent. I write for a living and I can tell you that of course there is a difference between content you have to crank out on a schedule and, say, a book you work on for months. While it can be a vocation, writing is a job like any other. It is not done by someone with some sort of mystical talent who only puts out perfectly crafted pieces in some sort of magical process. It takes time, effort and skill, just like any other job.
    I like my writing job/career, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work towards my vocation of writing fiction. I don’t understand commenters who somehow feel slighted because a blogger expresses interest in doing something besides their blog. Also, just because you can pick out a grammar or word usage error at glance, doesn’t mean you should. It is just as petty online as it is in real life =)

  23. Sebi says:

    @interested reader:
    I think Trent expands his ideas really well. His blog is everyday reading for me and I get a lot of great food for thought in little time here.

  24. Lizard says:

    I loved the post, very interesting ideas, but, how do you find your vocation? how do we know we are good at something, maybe we just think we are but we’re just lying to ourselves.


  25. WendyH says:

    You may be interested in reading “Zen and the Art of making a Living”, kind of an alternative career guide that I found more useful than the “Parachute” books when thinking about job-career-vocation questions.

  26. dh says:

    I appreciate this blog so so much and admire Trent, and anybody, who is financially successful as a blogger. This particular post helps me get clear about what I’m doing and what I’m finding is that how I *think* about work, career, vocation is really important. Clarity is so important. It’s the difference between having a really good day and one in which I feel stuck because the job I have isn’t my dream job, or is working in an office “for someone else”, when I’d rather be doing my part-time business full time, or writing my book, or my blog, or whatever. So thanks Trent, and thank you everyone who posts. It’s all food for thought! Oh, one more thing: hard work is inescapable and I am growing to really appreciate it. I’m finding the more I keep my focus off of the news and what pundits say about things the happier and more productive and effective I am.

  27. prufock says:

    I don’t really care for the phrase “born to do” to describe vocation. We aren’t born to do anything; what we do is a combination of our physical traits and experience.

  28. Nate says:

    Really enjoyed this. That is all.

  29. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    @Interested Reader
    If you think the blog is low quality, why are you here?

    Thank you for the post Trent. I had an opportunity to listen to a talk by the founder of Joie De Vivre (my apologies for any misspellings which Interested Reader will point out) discuss how his enthusiasm for hotel management slowly turned into enthusiasm for management in general. It was fascinating to hear how one vocation turned into another.

    I don’t think vocation is a single item that we are destined to do. We may have multiple vocations and they may change. By the way, his terms were work vs. passion, but they were pretty parallel to yours.

  30. Briana @ GBR says:

    You bring up a great point Trent. I think that’s why there’s vocation schools. Some people’s vocation is to be a chef, a handy man, law enforcement, etc. Trades and vocations are closely related yet not quite interchangeable. Jobs, like you said, provide you with your income. In this economic climate, people are so focused on their career, that they don’t give “jobs” a chance. I used every job/internship I’ve had to work my way up to a career. Now that I’m a full time employee, I’ve realize what I want my career to be based off my vocation. Entrepreneurship is full of people following their vocation and turning it into a career. To me, there’s not a lot of companies out there (anymore) that allow people to follow their career path. I’m hoping this changes soon, although I’m inspired by the boost of entrepreneurship.

  31. I was planning on writing a blog post about this myself. Not anymore. I couldn’t do better than this. Well done!!

  32. Interested Reader says:

    Gal, I’ve already said that I think Trent has some interesting ideas and does give some good advice.

    Even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything Trent wrote I think it’s a good post. Except I’m not sure what a througput writer is and even after I looked it up I’m still not sure. Except that I think he means he just writes as fast as possible to meet a self imposed deadline.

    What I’ve said in the past, and what I’ve seen other commenters say, is that Trent’s blog could be so much better if he just spent a little more time. Others suggsted that instead of trying to put out 2 posts per day, try one a day that’s really well written.

    At least I was saying that until I realized that putting out something that’s well crafted isn’t what Trent is trying to do. He’s just trying to get his ideas out as fast as possible and the well crafted, well though out writing is going to happen someday.

  33. Josh says:

    Thank you for posting four different times to tell us this, interested reader. I’m sure glad there are people out there who have nothing better to do than comment on successful blogs to tell everyone a word the author used doesn’t make sense and that if he would only write the way you want him to the blog would be much better.

    Jealousy is such a sad thing.

  34. Ajtacka says:

    @Interested Reader: the phrase was “high-throughput writer”, you’re missing the “high”. My understanding is it means many short pieces rather than fewer long pieces, not necessarily writing cranked out with little regard to quality.

    As for the quality here – the most annoying thing about this blog is the number of people jumping on each minor mistake. Yes, it should be ‘cue’ not ‘queue’, but you what he means and it doesn’t detract from the understanding. If you want to read only flawless writing, don’t read anything online (yes, every blogger makes mistakes!), and in fact probably give up reading altogether.

    Which is more imprtant to you: thought-provoking ideas, or grammatical perfection?

  35. christine a says:

    Seconding Ajtacka’s point about people jumping on minor mistakes. This seems to happen on a couple of blogs I read and it really is tedious when the discussion is interrupted to highlight a point of grammar or a spelling mistake. The solution is to read for meaning, then the context carries you along.

  36. Jenna says:

    Insightful post, as usual. However, I don’t agree with the vocation/born to do definition. It kinda reminds me of the term “soulmate” regarding relationships.

  37. steve wiawer says:

    I reread the job-career-vocation thing at least 5 times to really digest and experience it.
    I think it’s a clear, simple, excellent explanation of a topic that I have felt unsettled about all of my life. This will definetly aid me in my journey of self acceptance and sensible quest for the future. I’m 65 and it’s never late.

  38. asrai says:

    Don’t let “well-crafted” writing turn into a search for “perfect” writing that leads into constant re-writing that never leads into finished product. :)

  39. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know
    so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with some pics to drive the
    message home a little bit, but other than that, this is
    wonderful blog. An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

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