So I have been thinking a lot about work. And overwork. And boundaries. And trying to have a life (whatever that means). My inner monologue is a constant tug of war between feeling woefully behind and unproductive and pep talks about how it’s okay to make time for things that don’t involve work. And judging from my Twitter feed, I’m not alone in this.
Undoubtedly, these anxieties are fueled generally by our culture’s obsession with overwork and productivity and how we make those the measures of our self-worth. More particularly, the current metrics and marketplace of academe create a relentless cycle of never having done enough.
But I think there’s another, less examined culprit as well: the tension between a job on the one hand, and a vocation on the other.
A vocation is literally something you feel called or summoned to do. And at the outset (before all the committee meetings and grading marathons) I suspect most of us came to higher ed with at least a small sense of that. We wanted to teach. We wanted to create knowledge. And because it’s something we feel drawn to doing, a vocation is, by definition, supposed to provide satisfaction. We wouldn’t be doing it, if we didn’t want to do it, or even love doing it.
But you know that saying, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”? We might think this encapsulates the essence of a vocation–a job that transcends drudgery and mere necessity, and provides some sort of deeper fulfillment. But here’s the thing: there’s a part of me that pushes back (hard) against this pithy little saying. I think the concept of vocation also has the potential to become a limiting and tyrannical force in our lives.
On the one hand, I get it. We all want to feel a sense of purpose and as though we are in the right place, doing the work we were meant to do. We all want our work to be meaningful. Considering the amount of time we spend there (and perhaps, even the amount of time we spend going back and forth to our workplaces) feeling passionate and excited about our work is critical. And as someone who has supervised others–both faculty and staff–I know how essential it is for people to be excited and engaged with the work that they do. And most days, I have these feelings and I love my job. I work with amazing students, the college classroom energizes me, I have creative and supportive colleagues, and I’m still excited about my research agenda. I do feel called to do the work I do in higher ed.
But some days it’s awful. An angry parent, an uncooperative colleague, a failed grant proposal, a rejected article–all of these can derail that passion and sense of vocation.
And even without such dramatic interventions, sometimes work is just that: work. It can be tedious (hello, endless forms required for anything to happen at my university), it can require tasks that are not naturally in your skill set (hello, Excel spreadsheets!), it can be boring (hello, bi-weekly compulsory meeting where nothing is accomplished). I don’t know about you, but I have days and moments when I genuinely question this thing I’ve felt was my vocation for so long. Thankfully, those episodes usually pass quickly or are at least batted away by going for a run or drinking a margarita.
But this idea of a vocation can still mess with our heads and lead us to make bad choices. Focusing on our job as a vocation and not simply the work that it sometimes is, runs the risk of encouraging us to make unnecessary sacrifices because it’s our “calling.” If we treat our work as a vocation it becomes all too easy to justify staying in the office after 5pm, checking email when we wake up in the middle of the night, or saying “yes” to another commitment when our plate is already full to overflowing. And I would venture to guess that the tyranny of vocation is particularly the bane of women and POC in the academy who tend to do or be expected to do more service and more emotional labor than their counterparts. These individuals may in turn feel as though they should discredit or brush aside their exasperation and exhaustion because they’re meant to be fulfilling the higher call of a vocation.
It’s okay to be passionate about our work. And we ought to seek and nurture and expand those parts of our job that deliver joy and satisfaction and purpose. But sometimes work is work and it’s hard. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that. So it’s also okay to say “it’s just a job,” and to close the laptop, set the phone aside, and to step away to do something else that makes you happy.