When you can’t always get what you [think you] want

I started thinking this week about whether or not certain professions are a calling. A calling, of course, suggests Biblical metaphors of people being called from their ordinary lives to follow Christ in service to others. As a calling, work is more than a profession or a vocation; it becomes a divinely guided journey.

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew, 4:18-20)

Peter and Andrew were called to follow Jesus. And they did so without hesitation.

However, like in so much humanities research, the notion of a calling is way more complicated than we originally thought. A calling, obviously, is a social construction, but particularly pervasive one that still guides our ideas about work. Scholars far more serious than I have weighed in on the idea in real peer reviewed (and expensively paywalled) studies. [Disclaimer: I have not read this research and probably won’t. I have absolutely no idea of the historiography of the idea of work as a calling. Flying blind.] Nevertheless, the idea of having a calling, I think, remains deeply embedded in the U.S. collective cultural psyche. [Here I can only speak to the U.S. experience. I’m not sure if the idea of a calling emerged in places where the effect of the Weber’s Protestant work ethic and spirit of capitalism idea did not so profoundly shape people’s understandings about the nature of work.]

Having a calling sounds noble and necessary, which sells many career exploration and self-help books. If there’s a self-proclaimed thought leader or social media influencer who hasn’t weighed in on the subject of “finding your calling,” I’d be surprised. A quick Google search for “Finding Your Calling” returns 24 million results. An even quicker scan of these results suggests that you must find your calling as quickly as possible and that to do so, you (and millions of other lost people) need to pay the thought leaders a lot of money.

Many academics feel called to their work. Living and breathing one’s deepest interests feels like a calling, because that work welds our intellectual passions directly to our hearts. People often use the word love to talk about their academic work: I love teaching. I love research. I love my students. More than one person has told me that they carry on deeper relationships with their research than with actual people. Much as people lose themselves in relationships and forget who they are, academics lose themselves in their[our] work.

I wanted to study history because I’d spent so much time in Guatemala, first as a Peace Corps volunteer and later as a researcher and teacher. I wanted to understand the often horrible and terrifying things that had happened there because I cared about the people I met. I still believe that human rights, Cold War foreign policy, state violence, discrimination, racism, and neoliberalism are all subjects from which we can learn so much. I started to feel uniquely called to tell these stories and change how people thought about them. If not me, then who?

And then the job market collapsed.

The process of selling my research (or soul, depending on your perspective) as a new scholar in a job market that didn’t exist left me feeling demoralized, broken, and exhausted. I didn’t so much leave academia as just finally gave up altogether in bitter resignation. Giving up on what you thought was your calling fucking sucks.

Despite my personal angst, I want to acknowledge our privilege surrounding finding and pursuing meaningful work as a calling. I am horrified and ashamed to hear myself complain that my PhD makes me highly unemployable. I also have the luxury of being forty-one years old and writing blog posts about figuring out what I want to do as a career.  Generations of people haven’t been as privileged as I am to do serious thinking about whether they even had a calling and if so, whether they were following the right path towards it. A lot of people work in jobs that they don’t feel called to do, but must do to survive. Plenty of people work at jobs they hate.  As always, the privilege to pursue the idea of a calling remains bound to structural inequalities: race, class, gender, sexuality, able bodies.

The structural inequalities that give me the privilege to spend a lot of time thinking about the idea of a calling also become part of the logic of exploitation. The idea of having a calling often justifies exploiting people’s love for their work. It sounds like this: if you passionately love your work and feel called to it, you should be willing to do it for sixty to eighty hours a week for less than minimum wage without health insurance. This is one way institutions justify the indefensible treatment of highly educated researchers and talented professors. They seem to believe that adjuncts love their students so much that they’ll do any amount of teaching for free. People’s very real and deep love for their work often makes walking away from academia so hard and keeps people tied to it in ways that are exploitative. We often desperately want so badly to do that work.  [Another disclaimer: if you’re adjuncting, I am not blaming or attacking you in any way for your choices. We’re all doing what we have to do to get by.]

In no small irony, while rethinking the idea of a calling, I found myself returning to my own research. A good chunk of my research focused on the history of science, particularly the junk pseudoarchaeology to explain the presence of ancient native peoples in the Americas. I love (!) studying pseudoscience precisely because it disrupts the idea of science as orderly, rational, predictable, and linear progress towards a fixed point.  Science, as we know from many great historians of science, is messy. Studying pseudo-science, including alien theories, pseudoarchaeology, and eugenics, shows us the messiness, the dead ends, and the bad ideas, which are just as much a part of the history of science as Edison’s successful invention of the light bulb. The history of science has always involved a whole lot of wrong turns and spectacularly bad ideas that ultimately didn’t work.

What I am suggesting here is that perhaps careers, professions, jobs, and callings aren’t any more linear and orderly than the history of science. We see them as linear because our examples of successful careers highlight the orderly, neat, and linear ones from graduate school to the tenure track. This is also why the “shadow CV” is so fascinating. Our official CVs of notable and laudable successes hide a much longer series of failures. My guess is that if we looked at the careers of successful people who didn’t get the jobs they expected or who had to give up what they thought were their callings, we’d find that same messiness, the same strange dead ends, the same spectacularly bad ideas. The right ideas and paths sometimes emerge from a long series of the wrong ones.  

Here’s what I’ve learned:  just because a vocation feels like a calling doesn’t mean that it’s the only one or even the rightest one.

A calling aligns with your worldview, values, principles, and skills, merging them into a powerful constellation that guides us, which is why something that speaks to all of these aspects feels like your purpose, calling, and mission. We tend to talk about the idea of profession as a calling in the singular, as if we only get one. Just as one partner probably can’t meet all of our emotional needs, a single calling may not be broad enough to accommodate all of our dreams and deep beliefs. I suggest that we might better think of academia as a singular calling among many possible callings. We might try thinking of these as plurals: purposes, callings, and missions.

In thinking about my personal calling(s), I find that they aren’t context specific. I feel called to write and create things in life. I feel called to serve others by helping people understand things in new ways. What took me a long time to understand was this: callings are not careers which are not jobs.

I see my callings as my top level, biggest possible purpose in life, my career being a series of jobs that in some way reflect your calling, and a job as a context-based.

The way this works out for me is this:

  • Calling(s): understanding; making, creating; helping people
  • Careers(s): historian, writer, educator
  • Possible job(s): teacher, writer, editor, photographer, archivist, museum curator, libraries, non-profits, study abroad, diplomatic service, tour guide, workshop designer, translator, public speaker, and a lot of other things that haven't occurred to me yet.

After deciding to give up on academia, I worked a series of weird jobs that had nothing to do with my top level calling. I hated them and floundered. I’m now making conscious and intentional decisions about any career steps I take and making sure that anything I choose to do aligns with my callings.

My relationship to my research, teaching, and work has changed outside of the academy. My academic work no longer defines who I am as a person. I feel guilty about these changes, as if I was never supposed to love another thing in my life again. I had expected to carry a torch for my research forever. I still love (!)a lot of my research. I’m still fascinated how North American travelers, anthropologists, and others created stereotypes about native peoples in Guatemala. I love archaeology, pseudoarchaeology, visual display, museums, weird bits of pop culture, native cultures, scientific expeditions, and punk rock. Nevertheless, I’m getting interested in some other things these days, notably adoption politics (informed by personal experience), child welfare, criminal justice reform, and neoliberalism. I’m also entertaining new writing forms, including autoethnography, creative non-fiction, and musing about the power of the idea of collectivity.

In one of the most affirming moments of my recent life as an alt-ac person, I had new business cards printed. I’d found my old ones from grad school, complete with the official university logo. I chucked them. My new cards have my name, email, and still list HISTORIAN as my profession, sans institution.

Sometimes what feels like a calling doesn’t work out in real life. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, work can be the thing that we do, not the people we are.