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Vocation is often defined as ‘a strong feeling’ to do something, a job, a career, an occupation, to dedicate one’s life to an idea, a trade, a craft.  Typically it is applied to professions such as nurses or doctors, or at religious life. It is agreed, in general, that following your own vocation is fantastic, and not been able to do so, a human failure, perhaps even a personal tragedy.

‘Vocation’ has Latin and then French roots. It means ‘a calling’, a ’summons’. It has a tremendous religious connotation but today we are applying the concept widely.

Vocation is not the same as a profession. It’s not the same as a job. Vocations may ‘include’ a job (exercised to fulfill that vocation). But jobs don’t have to include a vocation. It is possible, indeed frequent, that people have a job that does not match their vocation or, even, it may be in contradiction. Like the son who has a vocation for the arts but is persuaded by his father to take over a family business which has noting do with them. The son may not loose his vocation but  he will probably live very frustrated if he cannot fulfill it.

I think that, in business, we don’t talk enough about vocations. It’s easier to ask somebody about his job, or jobs he or she likes to do, than asking ‘what’s you vocation?’ I’ve met many people even embarrassed to ask this,  as if we, in business, don’t get into these nuances. A job is a job, a career a career and a title in the rank, a title in the rank. We don’t ask a successful CEO; ‘what’s your vocation?’ Well, not often.

But if we could (re) introduce the ‘vocation’ idea in our narratives, we would gain enormously,. For example, I don’t know of any Employee Engagement system (assessment, survey) that asks plain and simple: ‘what’s you vocation?’ and ‘can you fulfill it in this job?’ (How many surprises we may have!) We ask about job satisfaction, even happiness, but not vocation.

A working place where vocations can flourish, will be a place ahead of the game in any Employee Engaging framework. It may not be possible, of course, to cater for all vocations of our employees. But that does not mean that we ignore this extraordinary motivational force.

Our Employee Engagement frameworks are too mechanical. They speak the language of machinery, such as ‘going the extra mile’ or ‘discretionary efforts’. Both concepts, as well intentioned as they may be, are horribly mechanistic; more energy, more efforts, more output. The ‘happy-place/happy-employee = better output’ is a sad view of human nature.

When you see vocations in actions, you invariably see something as well: happiness. I personally have never seen happier people than those who are in full flown exercise of their vocations. And I know some.

Just trying to rescue the concept a little bit harder,  may help us to understand better the whole motivational enigma. The one that is today dominated by a very poor input-output model.

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  1. Scott Fahlman

    You make a very good point here. When I was building and running a research lab in artificial intelligence, we wanted ONLY people with a vocation — a real passion about accomplishing breakthroughs in this field, which all of us felt was (and is) one of the last great scientific frontiers. I also wanted people practical enough to create some great applications along the way, and people who could get along with the others, but if the long-term “vocation” isn’t there, a researcher isn’t likely to shake up the world. (OK, sometimes you can change the world by the steady accumulation of good work, and that’s important, but revolutions require the occasional lightning bolt, and that requires passion.)

    One of my favorite interview questions for this kind of job was this: “If you win 100 million dollars in the Powerball lottery tomorrow, what would you do?” Often the responder would say something about taking a month or two off on a tropical island or seeing the world — these were all people who had been working very hard for a long time on projects or their PhD theses — but the good ones would then talk about the amazing problems they wanted to work on when the vacation was over. And some of them planned to take their laptops along, because they wanted to work on some pet problem during their time-out. Of course, these were all people who knew what I wanted to hear, but fortunately not too many were good actors, so it was easy to tell who really felt the vocation.

    So everyone we hired was passionate about their research, passionate about our shared quest, and would do the job for free if they didn’t have to worry about money. The trick was to weave these private, passionate visions into a fabric where they reinforced one another and where they paid enough attention to doing some practical things. But that’s a good problem to have. In a more typical (non-research) setting, you probably need a higher ratio of worker bees to fanatics, but a few people with real passion can have a remarkable effect on the others.

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