Thoughts on Vocation, Privilege, and Specialization

Thoughts on Vocation, Privilege, and Specialization May 15, 2020

Finding my way to a new career involves examining my thoughts on vocation or calling, as well as what to do with my existing specialization and privilege.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash (in public domain).

Due to the pandemic, I was unable to get a new teaching contract, so I guess at 38 years old it’s time to decide what I want to be when I grow up (again). I’m basically a knowledge-worker, and so I’m trying to figure out what that means for a career outside of academe. Many folks have gone alt-ac before me so I’ve been reading a lot of great blog posts on the topic… but everyone’s trajectory is unique, mine perhaps more than others in ways that I’ll explore below.

First up I’ll ruminate a bit on vocation. That topic has always been a bit fuzzy for me, in large part because I’m not religious and I mostly see it used in those contexts. But I participated in a working group on social justice, diversity, and vocation at my university this past year, and we read and talked a lot about vocation and how to infuse it into classroom contexts, so I feel like I have a better grasp on it now.

One common (though less palatable to me, because religion) way of defining vocation is along the lines of this quote by Frederick Buechner, who wrote: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Or this one by Hermann Hesse:

There are many types and kinds of vocations, but the core of the experience is always the same: the soul is awakened by it, transformed or exalted, so that instead of dreams and presentiments from within a summoning comes from without. A portion of reality presents itself and makes a claim.

So there are both interior and exterior components to vocation; vocation is their meeting place. But there’s also a sense of responsibility to one’s community that I like (but I also struggle with this, since there are a lot of “shoulds” in my life, circling around in my head, and if I listened to all of them, like what my weight “should” be and so on, I’d go crazy). On the topic of community there’s this nice snippet from “Finding the Center as Things Fall Apart” by Cynthia A. Wells: “vocation facilitates the exploration of individual interests but places them in a shared context of social responsibility” (63). In other words, vocation is attentive to mission but is also holistic; it attends to the common good but wants the individual to be acting in line with their passions, values, and talents.

Vocation as responsibility is a neat way of thinking about it, as Margaret E. Mohrmann does in her book chapter “‘Vocation is Responsibility’: Broader Scope, Deeper Discernment.” She defines responsibility as “the reliable ability to respond” (22), going on to say it is

the ability to be responsive – to other people, to situations, and to the world… It designates, therefore, the ability to recognize particular obligations, to deliberate about them, and to fulfill them responsibly – as well as learning to manage them appropriately (whether by accepting, declining, deferring, or delegating). These are obligations entailed not just by one’s career or job, but also by one’s very existence as a person – a person who is necessarily in relation with other persons and with the world (22-23).

And… I like all those things. I think of myself as a responsible person. I like being engaged. Another quote from Morhmann connects to why I’m especially drawn to the study of folklore and culture, and of identities around gender and sexuality: learning about vocation “acknowledges that the lives of responsible person are fully engaged and, thus, fully exposed to the terrible as well as the marvelous potential of human mutuality; it also reminds us that the nature of humans flourishing is complex and communal” (25). So much yes to everything in that quote; as I’m fond of saying, studying folklore doesn’t mean rainbows and unicorns and puppies all day, it also means dead baby jokes and horrible stereotypes, because in understanding the range of folklore we better understand humans, in all their messiness.

I know that I found my vocation in university teaching, so now I have to figure out where else I can find it. How can I responsibly serve those around me while staying true to myself? Is it enough to focus on the micro communities around me (my friends, my dance students, etc.) or should I somehow make my mark contributing to the larger world? (more on that below) I know enough about myself to know I probably wouldn’t thrive in politics, as much as I see that there are many political changes that must be made to achieve a more equitable society, so how can I contribute to those causes while thriving in my own life? I know that reproductive justice is incredibly important to me and to many others, but I’m neither a nurse nor extroverted enough to run a clinic or counter-protest, so how might I contribute there? My home discipline of folklore studies is important to me and I intend to keep contributing through conferences, networking and mentoring, and publishing, but is that enough? I don’t think I’ll ever be a theory pioneer or multi-book-deal rockstar and that’s fine (I’m not putting myself down, I just don’t think that’s where my strengths are), nor am I the person you want running our national organization because ugh, see above about me NOT being an extrovert. So how much do I need to contribute to be doing “enough”?

So I don’t know if this is typical or not, but for me, a lot of my internal conversations around vocation look like a process of elimination. I’m not good at or fit for that particular job; okay, that rules it out. But what about this other one, or that one over there? I clearly still have a lot of thinking to do.

In addition to the question of vocation, I struggle with notions of privilege. I know I have loads of it and I want to use it to do some good in the world, but I keep getting stuck on questions of what that actually looks like. For instance, I have historically not done all that much volunteer work – a bit of time here and there at a food bank, that kind of thing – because I feel like as an educator, community service is essentially what I’m already doing (insert rant about how little U.S. society values and pays educators).

So now that my teaching job is over, should I do more volunteer work and/or activism? Should I build a career on it? Are my existing activities kinda-sorta enough to cover those bases without me having to feel too guilty about not contributing enough to society?

I honestly can’t tell how much of my confusion is neoliberal creep, how much is white liberal guilt, and how much is my internal compass telling me to do more and do better because it’s the right thing to do. I’ve been meaning to write a post about neoliberalism, but briefly, it’s an economic framework emphasizing free markets and such that has increasingly been applied to social dynamics as well, assuming that individuals all start on an even playing field in life (not true) and that you deserve what you get, because if you had agency and a rational will to enforce it, then when you mess up you deserve the consequences of it. Yes, this can be quite victim-blamey.

Where I see the neoliberal creep in my own situation is a fear of being judged for my own circumstances, as though I should’ve made better decisions in life and could’ve predicted everything coming down the road. Like, should I have already been diversifying my career skills and interests? I dunno, I was pretty invested in becoming awesome at my existing skill set. This fear of judgment coming from others is also obviously intertwined with my sense of impostor syndrome, which is an ongoing struggle for many of us in academia. There’s a fear that we’re never good enough, we need to publish more, present more, do more…and worse, that someone will eventually catch on to us being total frauds and not deserving any of our accomplishments.

Like many academics, I probably tie up too much of my self-worth and identity into my productivity (“probably,” lol). I don’t envision myself ever not being active and productive; I’m just the kind of human who likes to fill days and nights with reading, thinking, writing, exercising, dancing, cooking, crafting, and so on. I need downtime every so often, where I’ll just lay around reading speculative fiction novels and baking too much, but I’m never going to just lay around eating bon bons and doing nothing for any extended period of time… not that it matters if someone is a productive member of society in terms of them deserving full human rights and such. But I’m always better at extending compassion to others than to myself; if someone can’t or won’t work full time for whatever reason, fine, I think we as a society have progressed beyond the point where we need all hands on deck or else the whole tribe is gonna starve (more on that below). But I cannot imagine a future for myself where there is no work, even if my “work” might look different than that of others.

This is also a timing issue for me; sure, it’s probably okay for me to take a few months off (especially since I would’ve already had that time off as summer break) to decide what’s next, but what if that time stretches out longer? What if I can get by on savings for a few months into the fall? Does “not working” during that time make me a bad person, since I’m not being a productive member of society? And if I take that route, take that risk, does it mean I deserve anything bad that comes my way like unexpected medical bills or whatever, since I wasn’t planning ahead like a good little neoliberal worker bee? Plus for all I know, things stabilize in higher ed and I get asked back for Fall 2021, so how much should I invest in another career that might turn out to be short-lived?

And now I get to the topic of specialization. With my specialization in folklore studies – especially folk narrative, and especially gender and sexuality therein, along with my side studies in sex education – I could fill every day of unemployment with research and writing, both academic and popular. There is SO much interesting work yet to be done here, and I think I’m good at it, and I do a great job translating it to various audiences that benefit from this knowledge and these messages.

I’m realizing now that I have some time to decompress that I could spend a lifetime writing and not say all the words in me. Is it wrong of me to seize this opportunity to write more, and try to make a go of it as a full-time career, even though that’s not really a “job” by many standards, even though we as a nation are in a giant crisis?

(this is an especially sticky topic for me, since my ex-spouse encouraged me to treat writing like a full-time job even if it wasn’t paying much yet, and then later held the fact that I contributed less to the household financially over my head as a threat if I didn’t fall in line with what he wanted…yay for spending a lot of time in therapy post-divorce, but I still get weird/bad thoughts around the idea of “just” being a writer even though it’s something I’ve done in varying amounts and with varying paychecks my entire life)

Going back to the question of guilt, I know there are real elements of privilege in terms of being able to stay home and shelter in place during a pandemic. Many essential workers cannot do so, and are forced to put their lives in danger when they didn’t really sign up for that as a grocery store worker, for example (and even the many health care workers who are committed to their patients didn’t necessarily sign up to work under these conditions either). I know that those of us who are able to stay home are doing others a service by doing so: specifically, we are removing ourselves from the equation as possible vectors of disease, and while that may be a small thing, it adds up if enough people do it.

Still, I feel a bit guilty about staying home and getting to write. I feel like I should be contributing “more to society,” whatever the hell that means, even though I see evidence day in and day out that people are hungry for creative and intellectual things to consume right now. I make some of those things, whether it’s essays I write or dance classes I teach on Zoom or sourdough loaves I porch-drop to friends. And yet it doesn’t feel like enough. Granted, the “enough” voice is probably more impostor syndrome speaking than anything else, and I’ll probably struggle with it for the rest of my life.

And then there are weird thoughts I’m having on the topic in regard to the high rates of unemployment. I know it’s a larger structural issue, not something I can solve on my own… but I feel weirdly guilty about the idea of taking a job that someone else might need more. I only have myself to support…what if someone applying for the same job had more mouths to feed? I realize that tying one’s employment status to one’s ability to access basic human rights is a feature of this capitalist system meant to keep people working at any cost, and me doing one thing vs. another doesn’t make a large difference in the grand scheme of things. But damn if that isn’t factoring in oddly when I think to myself, “Maybe in a few months I should just go get a job to stay busy while figuring the rest of my life out” (and yes, I am the queen of overthinking things, I know).

Part of taking into account specialization, though, means knowing what I can and can’t do, and trying to honestly evaluate when I should change that. There’s not much sense in me going back to school to get a STEM degree at this point, but I could transition into therapy or counseling easily enough based on what I already know/do, for example, especially if I should go the sex therapy route. And I know enough to know what I don’t know (if that makes sense); I’m not going to pretend I can fix appliances, I’m going to call a specialist.

And while the question of specialization remains tied up in privilege (since not everyone has the luxury of deciding what they want to be when they grow up), it’s also uniquely related to this current-day context. Okay, this is my own take on how society works and I’m not a sociologist, but bear with me: in this era, we have a large enough population and a good enough grasp on basic survival needs that it’s not an “all hands on deck” situation. We have enough people to do the work that keeps society running, even if we’re doing so in a shoddy capitalist framework that doesn’t treat any but the rich humanely. If I decide not to go get a job picking vegetables or working an assembly line, it’s not going to cause the downfall of my immediate community. Our agricultural and industrial networks are large enough that the actions of an individual don’t seem to matter all that much (again, unless it’s a person at the top of the hierarchy, and yes, I realize I’m making an argument in favor of collective action like having unions, which I’m totally for).

So… I look at the U.S. today, and I think, “Where can I make a difference? Where am I needed?” I am able-bodied and I can work, but does that mean I should take any job that just needs me to lift/move things with my hands? Probably not, but it doesn’t mean that work isn’t valuable. I’ve got decent eyesight, but does that mean I should take any job that has me behind a screen? Maybe not, but that might be a good fit for someone else.

I grapple with how to express these thoughts in a way that’s not elitist, since I don’t believe I’m inherently better than anyone else. I don’t think manual labor or retail work is “lower” than the kinds of intellectual labor I’m accustomed to in academia. All those jobs should certainly get a living wage, which sometimes even seems too much to advocate for, sigh. And I know those jobs have a number of special skills that their workers develop, which we might label occupational folklore, and that’s not insignificant. I don’t think I’d last a day in many “entry level” jobs, largely because I haven’t cultivated the skills necessary to do them well.

Which returns me to my original question: what should I do with the skills that I have cultivated? Is it worth it to set them aside for now, relegate them to weekend blogging and research, in order to cultivate a new skill set? I admit to being a bit grumbly at that, in the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” way, since I’ve grown pretty accustomed to being good at what I do, and hence reticent to throw myself into new things that I’m not as good at (which, granted, might be an extension of the extreme competitiveness of contingent academia, since you have to excel in your classes and get great student evaluations and peer reviews, or else you might be out of a job). And I know myself well enough to rule out multiple kinds of work that I think I’d be bad at or would hate, and I’m not sure what that leaves (which, again, is a privilege that many do not have) once I’ve sat down and listed everything. I’m sure that trying to translate my academic CV into a “real world” resume will reveal a whole host of specific skills I didn’t even think of myself as having, but how to assemble those puzzle pieces into a job remains a daunting task.

Again, I’m mostly reflecting here. I might take a job totally unrelated to anything I’ve ever done just for the novelty of it, and to be able to turn off the parts of me that care too intensely about my work, leading to burnout. Or I might try to stay close to what I already know, such as looking for work in academic publishing. But one of the points of what I’m writing down here is to feel out the weird tensions in my desire to be productive and helpful, and my self-knowledge about what I’m actually good at or not.

Vocation, it seems, remains a double-edged sword: find what you love and are good at, and you’ll be happy until someone or something takes it away from you, which is inevitable, even if that something is simply death. The whole “love what you do, and  you’ll never work a day in your life” is all well and good, but it mostly applies to people with privilege, and it doesn’t take into account the terrible burnout that can accompany it. I don’t regret my education and career decisions (even if neoliberalism tells me I should’ve probably done something different with my life, something more STEM-y and more wealth-generate-y), but I do want to find a way to move forward that’s responsible, engaged, caring, and good for me and my community all at once. Is that too tall an order? Somehow I feel like I’m simultaneously wanting too much and too little, so we’ll see how it goes over time.



Mohrmann, Margaret E. “Vocation is Our Responsibility: Broader Scope, Deeper Discernment.” In Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education. Edited by David S. Cunningham. Oxford University Press: 2016: 21-43.

Wells, Cynthia A. “Finding the Center as Things Fall Apart: Vocation and the Common Good.” In At This Time and Place: Why Vocation is Crucial to Undergraduate Education Today. Edited by David S. Cunningham. Oxford University Press: 2015, 47-71.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!