Every week at VOCA, we are talking to people about their career options and work realities. Some of our clients are displaced. They have lost their jobs. Others are restless. They hate their jobs. All are struggling with the same question: what is God’s plan for my work life? The hundreds of clarity seekers who come to VOCA are not alone.
The Barna Group recently released fresh research on a belief that is feeding much of our vocational discontent:
“Most respondents agree there is a perfect job waiting for them to discover. A majority of U.S. adults (67%) agrees to some extent. Looking specifically at practicing Christians, even higher percentages agree (75%) there is a ‘best-fit job’ waiting for them.”
In our research at VOCA, we’ve found that vocational trends like these in the U.S. tend to mirror international trends, particularly among the working and educated classes. In this post, we ask and answer three questions: 1) Why do we believe there is one perfect job out there for us?, 2), Why do we doubt our current job?, and 3) What should we do?
Why do we believe this?
1. Vestiges of a warped concept of calling.
Vocation is a Christian term. The church dominated western culture with the idea of “calling” and missionaries exported it to the globe. This vocational dimension of God’s will has taken different forms. From the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther, there seems to be a bias towards the vocation into which you were born (See 1 Cor. 7). If your father was a blacksmith, then you were meant to be one. Calvin saw a bit more of a dynamic process, where our obligation was to best steward our gifts. Clashing with and informing these ideas was the notion that clergy had a primary calling and all other vocations were of secondary importance.
Somewhere, in our residual Christian consciousness, we have bought into the “one vocation is God’s will” idea. Despite the multiple vocations of biblical characters and saints since, we believe a true calling is a singular lifetime pursuit. This idea is reinforced by the people we put on pedestals as models of success.
2. The “successful” stay on one path
Every four years as the Olympics come around we celebrate the singular focus of the world’s best athletes. Their dramatic biographies tell stories of childhood dreams, perseverance, and sacrifice. We hear the same kinds of lifelong consistency in the life stories of the elites in all domains. Doctors who began their quest for medical careers in middle school, artists who began as children, politicians who look back to student government. From athletes to actors, it seems that the people we know about, talk about, and admire have been pursuing the same general course for their entire lives.
Parenting plays into this. For the last several decades parents have pushed their children to develop depth earlier and earlier. David Brooks calls it the achieveatron (See his book On Paradise Drive). Children are in supervised activity after activity hoping to find the path to distinction and college scholarships. Singular, life-long focus has been sold to us from early on as the secret to success.
3. Romanticism applied to career
The idea of “the one” sounds strangely like our approach to dating and mating. We may smirk at the notion of “our one true love” but from Disney to HBO, Hollywood to Broadway, Nashville to New York this story is playing on repeat. Perhaps since we place so much importance on our work–given how it feeds our sense of security and identity– we have fallen in love with our careers. We are applying romantic ideals to the realm of vocation.
Latent Christendom, success stories, and a romantic/idolatrous attachment to work all feed this errant notion that there is one perfect job out there for us and we just need to find it.
So why do we assume that the perfect job is “out there” and not the one we already have?
Why are we so prone to doubt that our current job is the perfect job?
Not only are we seduced by the notion that there is a perfect job for us somewhere in the world. We are equally convinced that our current job is not the one. Why?
- Socially fed FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Whether it’s talking to family or friends or trolling connections on your favorite platform, all of us are confronted with peers who are doing better. They love their jobs. They love their lives. Every shred of advice is shared with the utmost confidence and gravity. We compare our jobs to others and assume we are behind.
- Looking for more than a job can give. This is an extension of the romantic fallacy. It is also a way we make an idol out of a job–a small “g” god. No one person can meet all your needs. No one job can either. A job is not just about serving our interests. Your vocational niche provides a way to contribute to the world and serve God.
- Our process that led to our current job was poor. Our clients frequently say that they do not trust the process that got them to their current job. “It just sort of happened, with little thought or care.” We love coming alongside these folks and providing a rigorous framework for discerning God’s direction in their work. Here’s what’s ironic: about one-third of them stay where they are. Yet they stay with a sense of ease, with a lack of doubt, with fact-based confidence that they are not an imposter.
- Our job actually is terrible. Some of us are looking elsewhere because we are in a terrible situation. There’s a crippling lack of clarity, respect for dignity, or path to the future in our current situation. Keep in mind, God could still want you to stay to develop skills and character and to be an example of his grace. There’s a verse the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7 that comes to mind: “If you can get your freedom, do so.” He also says, if you cannot, “do not let it trouble you.”
What Should We Do About It?
As we consider how to attack our oppressive obsession with the perfect job, we take two swings at it: first, one big idea that can free us, and then five shifts that can reinforce a focused, hopeful approach to career evolution.
One Big Idea: Multiple Callings, One Caller
The following words come from a context where the Apostle Paul is giving instructions about following God’s call in various spheres of life. In every sphere, and specifically in work assignments, the big idea is that there are multiple callings but only one Caller.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:23-24)
This changes the game we are playing. We are not trying to find one calling or career. We are trying to serve Christ in whatever we do. And we already know that we have multiple callings in life–a calling to family, to church community, and to our neighbor. So it follows that we may have multiple vocational callings as well. Many biblical figures had multiple vocational callings–Moses, Joseph, David, Amos, and Paul for example.
“One caller and multiple callings”, feeds into five shifts.
In cultures where we have vocational choice, we fixate on what we do or what we should do. But from a Kingdom frame, who we do it for is really the factor that determines the value and meaning of our work. This is liberating. It doesn’t negate the drive to find good work that uses your gifts and in some way contributes to human flourishing. However, it takes away the toxic urgency of having to get it right now. This way of thinking also creates space for us to serve for seasons in very broken environments as representatives of God’s wisdom and healing.
From “Perfect Job” to “Best Job For Now”
I hate the language of “dream job” or “perfect job.” This type of terminology puts too much weight on the job–making it an idol. These words don’t match reality–no job stays the same. Even if it is perfect, it will only be perfect for a season. You will change, and/or the job, company, or industry will change. Finally, this thinking burdens us with unnecessary pressure to get our vocational choice right or risk a life of misery.
Instead, adopt the idea of “best job for now.” Given all you know what God is doing in the world, and what he is doing in your life–the growth, opportunities, and responsibilities–where you are is the most fitting place for you to work for now. If we serve him, he always reserves the right to redirect. If we serve him, we may find that different seasons in our life call for adjustments to the mix between domestic and vocational callings. The best job for now approach takes the pressure off our shoulders and makes room for God to move.
From “I Decide” to “God Leads”
The individual quest for happiness and respect are driving the language behind the Great Resignation. Our talk reveals the functional atheism that is the default mode in our culture. We decide based on what we want. This is a sub-Christian way of life.
When we are in the yoke with Jesus (see Matthew 11), Jesus decides, we follow. How is God using Scriptures, biblical teaching, circumstances, internal promptings, and godly council to direct your steps? How do you do the work to hear what God is saying? Rigorous listening for his prompting frees us from the need to find the perfect job and find it on our own.
From “External Validation” to “Internal/Eternal Validation”
Here’s the great irony of our culture. We are hyper-individualistic and hyper-sensitive at the same time. The current gospel is “find and do what makes you happy.” And yet we crave the right circumstances and social support under which to be happy. The individual quest for fulfillment is a journey of finding or shaping our environment to be what we need. Internal motivation, external validation.
The Jesus way is the opposite. Following Christ, we have an external motivation–serving the one who gave his life for us. And we practice a combination of internal/eternal validation. Internal means we carry our value system and purpose with us. We work for the Lord. We don’t need a job to tell us our work matters. Eternal means we see our daily presence on the job as part of God’s eternal mission–to take a broken world and put it back together. Getting validation right frees us to be open-handed with our careers.
From “Set It & Forget It” to “Always Open”
The final shift is to move from a “set it and forget it” mentality to a posture where we are intentionally aware of what is happening in our space and officially open to opportunities. Clients will tell me, “A recruiter called me but it’s a long shot” or “I’m not sure I’m interested.” Going through secretive interview processes can be a time suck, but doing so has more upside than disadvantages. Consider some of the benefits:
- It forces you to tune up your resume and your personal value proposition–the unique set of solutions you offer employers.
- It expands your network.
- A “not interested” result by either side, only gives you more confidence in where you are.
- If they are interested, it boosts your clarity and confidence in the value you bring.
- You never know when the next assignment might be knocking on your door.
Remember, even if you get to the very final round of interviews, you always reserve the right (and responsibility) to say no.
Breaking free from the oppressive god we call “the perfect job”
A lot of external and internal noise feeds the unhelpful ideas that 1) “There is a perfect job for me,” and 2) “I should be able to find it.” Underneath much of our collective thinking is the idolizing of our work–loading into a created thing the expectations and hopes on which only our Creator can deliver. Instead of obsessing with finding the perfect job, we can build our way to God’s future from where we are.
As C.S. Lewis says:
“Keep fulfilling the obvious duties of your station (You really know quite well enough what they are). Remember[ing that] He is the artist and you are only the picture, so quietly submit to being painted.” (The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3)
Over time the picture becomes more and more clear, the various scenes make more sense, until the end, when our career path will fit perfectly into our sense of God’s plan for ourselves and his world.