I have a friend who is in a relationship. He is in love; she is not. In one conversation, she used the somewhat overused expression that she was “focused on her career.” I have always detested that phrase, seeing it as simply another expression of self-focus, but in conversing with my friend, a distinction crystalized that I had not apprehended before.
The problem is not, as I had before believed, that one was committed to the career instead of something else, but that a person always had a career. The example always in my mind was that a husband should always put his family first, his career latter. I came to see, though, that the distinction is not between a focus on career and the pursuit of a career in another manner, but a much more radical division, a distinction between a career and a vocation.
I am not quibbling over vocabulary; the distinction is real and matters foundationally to what we desire and live for. It affects our motivations and goals and our relationships, especially in such a money- and position-driven time and place as modern America.
The distinction is stark and speaks to the heartward direction of our lives: we commit to a career; we submit to a vocation. The career becomes that end towards which all our endeavors and all our desires for whatever it is we are doing tend. The vocation is not its own end; all our endeavors and all our desires are for God; the vocation a means.
Nor must we misname “career” as “profession” and “vocation” as “job.” The division is not between the doctor and the hairdresser. Each may pursue his or her chosen path for career or vocation. To see the heart, though, all one must do is look to the means. A career-minded doctor will talk or think of getting through college and med school, not going through. In the latter, learning is a part of the process, valuable not just as a means to the end but as a part of the end; in the former, learning is a necessary evil.
I saw this once very clearly defined in a conversation with a friend who had gone through med school. We were discussing current medical costs, the health care system, and all the related issues. It came out in the conversation that a part of the reason my friend saw justification for healthcare workers to charge whatever they wanted and whatever they could was that they had to “endure” residency. The pain and suffering they experienced (and it is a rigorous and grueling time) had to be paid back by someone, here, the patients. Such a mindset reveals that the doctor who would claim to be working in service of his patients sees them, at least partially, as a means to gain back what he has lost. He “deserves” whatever he can demand because he has endured what they have not.
The same could be said of the hairdresser. While perhaps the training is less grueling, the attitude could be the same. Let me seek my “vocation” so that I may somehow earn what “I deserve.” Or, as is so often said, “I have paid my dues.” Such an attitude is a mind fixed upon exchange. I exchange an endurance of toil and stress so that I may be owed a certain type of life, of acclaim, of direction and purpose and end.
Thus, practically, our commitment to a career means that we do, in fact, seek excellence, but our desire for excellence is for advancement. We see advancement as dependent upon us, upon our performance, and we strive for it to advance that which we do and what we desire to be. Or, even if we desire to but remain where we are, in some respect, we desire acclaim and acknowledgement of our excellence. Our excellence is but another means to the end of our career.