What do you do for a living?

When others ask this question, they usually want to know what my day job is. What do I do each day after I punch my time card? I usually oblige and give a brief answer. I am a web designer. 

But inside, I immediately revert to my Sesame Street watching self and hear Elmo ask me what I want to be when I grow up. 

Sure, I’m a web designer, but I’m also a father, a husband, a musician, and a writer. Now that I think about it, web designer describes approximately 10% of what I do and who I am. This question sends me into an existential tailspin. What DO I want to be when I grow up? Is it too late to change my answer?

Reframing vocation

When you read books on the topic, the term that pops up repeatedly is vocation.   

I think we have inherited a fundamental misunderstanding of the word vocation. This error is why we default to asking strangers what they do for a living. But, unfortunately, knowing what someone does for a living is not a great way to get to know who they are, and what I do for a living does not define who I am.

Robert Greene discusses this in his book on mastery:

“[The use of the word vocation] in relation to work began in early Christianity—certain people were called to a life in the church; Over time, the word became secularized, referring to any work or study that a person felt was suited to his or her interests.”

Robert Greene

Today we think of a vocation as the physical work we do instead of a deeper calling to a certain kind of life or to be a certain kind of person. 

It is a subtle shift, but altering the definition of vocation to include the idea of a calling suddenly opens up a world of meaning and purpose. Parker Palmer expresses this sentiment:

“The deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?”

Parker Palmer

By reframing our thinking around this ancient view of vocation, we can transcend the day-to-day. Our vocation is no longer just about what we do for a living. It’s also about the meaning and the purpose we bring to bear as we go about our work or study.

The political theorist Patrick Deneen clarifies this idea further.

“The origin of the term [vocation] points to the way that one’s work connected not only to other activities in one’s life paths—one’s ‘career’—but, more comprehensively, how one’s work related to a larger whole outside and beyond one’s own life.”

Patrick Deneen

Who I am becoming

The Benedictine tradition believes that labor is one way to participate in the creative work of God. Work is only good if it aligns with God’s purposes and for the benefit of others. 

In my own life, I have decided to focus less on what job I have and focus more on who I am becoming and how I am helping others. As an example, I started meeting with a spiritual director. This relationship has helped me learn more about myself through self-reflection exercises and discussion. In our time together, I have discovered that I have a gift for teaching and sharing information. So in my job as a web designer, I look for opportunities to teach others and share my knowledge.

Even if you don’t resonate with the religious aspect of this viewpoint, working for the benefit of others can bring a great deal of meaning and purpose. So can morality or sustainability. There are many paths to finding meaning, but the journey begins by expanding our awareness of vocation.