The Pursuit of Vocation

By Peng Kate Gao

Work is love made visible.

−Kahlil Gibran

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his brilliantly written book The Happiness Hypothesis, summarized three ways that people generally view their work: a job, a career, or a calling. A job is what people do to earn money and to support their families. A career is what people do to achieve higher goals, such as advancement and prestige. A calling, on the other hand, is for those who find their work so intrinsically engaging and fulfilling that they do it for the sheer love of it. These people usually would continue to work even without pay, if they suddenly became very wealthy. They would have found their life’s vocation.

How do we find ours? In many ways, this is an age-old question. Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius advised, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Nowadays in industrialized western society, where individual autonomy and achievement are farmers among the highest priorities, this question seems even more urgent. As Apple entrepreneur Steve Jobs, remembered as much for his passion as his success, once said, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.” This type of sentiment has always created mixed feelings in me. I am deeply moved and inspired, but at the same time confused and even frightened, as one question burned in my mind: what is my burning idea and would it be strong enough to motivate me to the end? For a long time, I thought my passion was out there, like some great truth, waiting to be found.

Over the years, however, I developed a more nuanced perception of passion. In conversation with a highly accomplished scientist, I once asked, “When you were very young, did you dream about becoming a scientist and is science the only thing you have ever wanted to do?” I was expecting an unhesitating yes, since most people believe that the seed of an interest in science and becoming a scientist has to be planted before third grade, or it’s too late. Much to my surprise, however, he answered, “I grew up in the countryside and my parents were both farmers. I had never met a scientist before entering college. However, I have always had a curious mind and diligent working attitude. In college, I became interested in biology. I worked hard in the lab, and fell in love with what I was working on. I told myself to keep pushing forward and see how far I could go in science. What got me here today is curiosity and dedication.”

This response resonated more with me, and I suspect with many other people, than the idea of a “burning passion.” To paraphrase Robert Greene in his book Mastery: when we are very young, we are attracted to certain activities, such as sports, music, words, visual patterns or mathematics, etc. He refers to this as “primal inclinations,” indications of what makes us unique. As we grow older, most of us lose touch with these inclinations. We are distracted and influenced by outside opinions and judgments, and thus become lost and frustrated. To find one’s vocation and achieve mastery, it’s important to reconnect to these primal inclinations, and equally, if not more, important is to deliberately learn skills through hard work and discipline. “It is time to reverse this prejudice against conscious effort and to see the powers we gain through practice and discipline as eminently inspiring and even miraculous.” In other words, instead of finding passion, we might be better off cultivating passion.

This approach brings to mind the two kinds of romantic love that Jonathan Haidt described in his book: passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love is what one falls into in the initial phase of a relationship. It ignites and burns brightly, however it does not last forever. To support a strong and long-lasting relationship, passionate love has to transform into companionate love, which is the kind of love that people build day-by-day over a lifetime with deep-rooted trust and mutual respect. It is certainly hard work to maintain, any long-term couples would acknowledge, but it is also considerably more satisfying. Perhaps we should approach work in much the same way. Perhaps the key to finding our vocation is to identify what we love, and more importantly, spend our life working to cultivate and strengthen it through respect, devotion and diligence.

Cultivate passion, pursue life’s vocation, and invite the world to share our joy in the making.