The University of St. Thomas

September 9th, 2010

Vocation and the Well-Considered Life

Published on: Thursday, September 9th, 2010

by Professor Jerry Organ

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a workshop on Vocation and Professional Education sponsored by the Collegville Institute at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  There were roughly a dozen of us gathered from across the professions, including a few of whom had been directly involved in the recent Carnegie series of books on professional education.

The conversation was wide-ranging, starting with the question of the ways in which professional schools promote a sense of vocation (if they do so), and encompassing how the professional context may present barriers to a sense of profession as calling, and whether we can articulate a theological understanding of professions.

Reading two recent pieces on the “well-considered life” – Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s essay in the Harvard Business Review – How Will You Measure Your Life – and David Brooks’ responsive essay in the New York Times – The Summoned Self – had me thinking back over our conversation on vocation and the professions during the workshop.

Brooks notes that Christensen advised the students to invest a lot of time when they are young in finding a clear purpose for their lives.  Brooks then suggests that when the student is done having thought about and divined a purpose for his life, “life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.”

Brooks than distinguishes Christensen’s model as follows: “The person leading the Well-Planned Life emphasizes individual agency, and asks, “What should I do?” The person leading the Summoned Life emphasizes the context, and asks, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?”

Brooks distinction between the individual aspect of vocation and the communal aspect of vocation was one of the primary themes that permeated our conversations about vocation and the professions during the workshop.  We noted that while each of us has to discern how God is calling us to use our skills and talents in the world, and that this can seem to be an individualistic endeavor as each of us engages in dialogue with God, the reality is that this is a social endeavor — we do this within a communal context.  We are both called by God AND summoned by our community.  Thus, while I appreciate Brooks’ effort to ground one’s sense of purpose in life in the context of a community or of society – “what are my circumstances asking me to do?” – I don’t think Christensen really takes all that different an approach.

Indeed, a close reading of Christensen’s essay reveals an appreciation for the communal or social aspect of vocation.  This touches on another theme from our conversations at the workshop, the reality that at any one time we have multiple vocations as we balance the demands of our job, our family, our friends and our community.  Christenson speaks to this most explicitly:

Your decisions about allocating your personal time, energy, and talent ultimately shape your life’s strategy.

I have a bunch of “businesses” that compete for these resources: I’m trying to have a rewarding relationship with my wife, raise great kids, contribute to my community, succeed in my career, contribute to my church, and so on. And I have exactly the same problem that a corporation does. I have a limited amount of time and energy and talent. How much do I devote to each of these pursuits?

Christensen suggests that this allocation decision should be made with a view to long-term health and vitality of each of these “business relationships,” not just to the short-term gain one might be able to accomplish in one area, noting that many of his Harvard Business School colleagues from the class of 1979 have returned to reunions unhappy, divorced, and estranged from their children because they didn’t “invest” time and energy wisely in relationships that they had said at one time would be important to them.  Thus, Christensen would appear to implicitly acknowledge a much more social or communal orientation toward making decisions in one’s life than Brooks seems to recognize.

This demonstrates another point of apparent misunderstanding between Christensen and Brooks.  Brooks seems to think that under Christensen’s model, one defines a sense of purpose in life, or principles to guide life and then everything falls into place.  This might suggest that vocation is something we decide once in life – we decide which fork in the road we will follow and then we have no more decisions to make.  But just as we have multiple vocations at any one time, we frequently have multiple vocations over time.  Our lives involve many “forks in the road.”

Our conversation at the workshop reflected this point, as we noted that even after defining a sense of purpose for our lives or a sense of principles to guide our decisions, we still must engage in an ongoing process of discernment.  Do I need to let go of a volunteer opportunity to devote time to caring for a sick child or a parent in need of assistance as he ages?  Do I need to take on new responsibilities at work to help the collective enterprise succeed (which may mean less time at home with the kids)?  Should I pursue this new job opportunity in a different city that has presented itself or should I remain where I am and not disrupt my family life by uprooting them and moving?

In wrestling with each of these questions, and discerning what God wants us to do, we must reflect both individually (prayerfully discerning what God wants us to do and how our principles might inform our decision) and within a communal context (what do those with whom I am in relationship tell me about how the community is calling me to allocate my time and energy).

In sum, I think Christensen and Brooks both have good insights on living a life of purpose, but I think Brooks mistakenly suggests that there are two different approaches – an individualistic approach and a more communal approach.  In my view, these two approaches should be integrated into one model of discernment that involves both individual, prayerful dialogue with God regarding God’s call and communal awareness of how our relationships are summoning us to use our gifts and talents to meet the needs of those around us.  It may be that some of us are called to be more on the individualistic end of the spectrum and some of us are called to be more responsive to the summons of the community, but these should not be presented in sharp dichotomy – individual discernment can best take place only in some communal context.