Vocation versus job

Managing the job-versus-vocation dilemma is an important part of life balance. Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

We all want to do what inspires us. But sometimes we all have to do what brings in the money. When a child, my wise old aunt used to tell me as much. ‘You will always have one thing you want to do,’ she would say, ‘and one thing you have to do.’


When it comes to how we fill our time, we all have that dilemma between the ideal and the pragmatic. Counselling clients will often share with me a wish for a particular type of job or career, but will show that they are also aware that their choice may end up being limited.


Sometimes we can provide some resolution by doing both at once. There is the Hollywood stereotype, for instance, of the part-time waiter, part-time actor. This can be a nice solution, as it allows for both an aspiration, and a means to live. But it comes with its dangers. We can end up split between both, and not giving enough attention to either.

In other cases, we ‘go for it’. We drop our caution, and give up everything for our dream. This means we can, in theory, apply maximum effort to our vocation. But that course, too, comes with a downside: we can end up both poor and burned out. Equally, if we drop the vocation and go for the pragmatic career, we can end up richer, but unfulfilled and burned out.


The vocation-versus-job problem often feels different at different times. After a row with our boss, leaving to pursue something more vocational strikes us as very attractive. Yet, when we are enjoying our job, however routine, it can seem a refuge, a source of security.

There is also the question of whether we are the best people to judge what our vocation should be. Our desire for a particular career can be guided by many things other than wisdom, for instance family expectation, or a lust for fame and fortune. This is further complicated by the fact that our true motivations are often disguised, even from ourselves.


I wish there was an easy answer to all this, but there simply isn’t. Try telling the parent who needs to earn to put food on the table, that they should follow their dream, and risk not feeding their children. Equally, try telling the severely depressed person that they should simply keep doing the job that is driving them to an early grave.

But even though there is no easy answer, we can still find good approaches. Here are some suggestions:

  1. ALWAYS BE EXPLORING OPTIONS – Wherever we are right now, we can be exploring options. Job searches are often best done when we don’t need our next job, and are not desperate.
  1. ALWAYS BE IMPROVING – Whatever we want to do, it is rarely all-or-nothing. A photographer can take their next photograph; a songwriter can write their next song.
  1. ALWAYS BE OPEN TO ADAPTATION – Something may come up that is not the ideal we imagined, but has some interest. Maybe we can adapt. We might even discover a career related to our vocation that is better suited to us. Such a life can be a happy adventure.
  1. BE COURAGEOUS – When contemplating developing a career or vocation, it is common to fear rejection or ridicule, or to feel we are somehow not enough. Often those fears are unfounded.

Whatever our individual situation, it’s not easy. Sometimes we want adventure; sometimes we need security. It is very hard to find an appropriate balance. And yet, in our individual quests, it is good to be always exploring, always improving, always adapting, and always trying to be a bit braver than we might be.