The other day I was reading a business book that, while terribly written and full of wrongheaded analogies, nevertheless had a compelling central idea: that if we find our own personal WHY, the goal/dream/philosophy/mission that motivates us and lights us up, the HOW and the WHAT flow from it and create goodness. Starting from the WHAT, on the other hand, is how people end up with that tenure-track position or tenure or a corner office or whatever and then look around and think, oh shit, what have I done.
It made me think about the calling vs. career vs. job thing that always comes into the question about what to do after you leave academia.
People have, quite rightly, criticized the discourse around calling because, especially in its too-facile versions, it acts as if practical, material, logistical concerns shouldn’t be an issue. “Do what you love and the money will follow” is incredibly irresponsible unless you have a trust fund or a supportive partner whose job can cover the bills and then some.
My clients will tell you I’m the first person to support their getting a job, any job, because the rent needs to be paid and the groceries need to be bought. All work is dignified by virtue of its supporting your life.
Some people also just need a period of time when they’re clocking in and out, paying the bills, and not worrying too much about their career. That’s totally fair. I needed a good many years to recover from academia before I could think about what I really wanted to do and how that might happen.
But I do believe that many of us have a calling. The problem (one of them, anyway) is that we confuse a calling with a career.
If you’re passionate about, for example, bringing beauty into the world, there are so many ways that can happen. You could be an artist, you could sell craft supplies, you could teach painting on cruises, you could own a gallery, you could learn to make clothes.
If you’re passionate about the power of literature to illuminate the world, you could teach literature, you could write books, you could sell books, you could be a literary agent, you could review books, you could write a blog about books.
Any given calling is going to have so many ways it might be expressed. But in academia, calling and career get conflated. The monastic roots of the modern university still show up in the idea that academia is so valuable, so venerated, so precious, that you should put up with anything to keep it.
And for people who are able to forge successful academic careers, and whose callings align with those careers, well, power to them.
But not all of us are that lucky. I got a tenure track job and realized I hated the career, that it didn’t actually express my calling at all. Some people get shut out of the career in various ways at various times. Some people get worn down over time by the increasing demands of higher ed. Some people encounter structural barriers to either the career or success in the career by virtue of who they are.
If you conflate calling and career, this is devastating. If they’re the same thing, then a career not working out calls everything you are into question.
But if you can tease your calling out of this conflation, if you can connect with the values or passion or inspiration or motivation that led you to academia in the first place, then you can think creatively about how to both live your calling and support your life financially.
Maybe you find a way to make your calling pay the bills. Maybe you have a job that pays the bills and gives you the freedom – temporal, financial, energetic – to pursue your calling in other domains.
And the form it takes will probably change over time. But so long as you’re making ends meet and you’re getting to live the things that are important to you – which is what your calling actually is – then you’re living a great life.
So despite all of the ways it gets used badly, I still think calling is important, because calling is all about you: who you are in the world and what makes your heart sing. But just because it’s important, that doesn’t mean you need to deal with it right now if what you need is a job or time to heal or both. It’ll still be there when you’re interested in it again.