Myths of Vocation

By Michaela O’Donnell

August 22, 2018

De Pree Journal

Recently, I had two separate conversations with friends who were in career crises. Each crisis was catalyzed by a sense of disillusionment with work—the feeling that the world had promised them something and was failing to make good on that promise.

One friend, in her mid-thirties, is in the midst of a corporate career climb. She’s smart, kind, and works hard to jump through the hoops of corporate culture. She’s been promoted twice in the last year, each promotion coming with a larger portfolio of work, access to more networks, and more money. She’s doing what we might call, “checking all the career boxes.” We were texting because she was on the verge of another promotion. So when our text thread pivoted from excitement to lament and loneliness, I was surprised. She explained to me that just as she was rearing back to jump through yet another hoop, she had this sinking feeling that she didn’t actually like her work, at all. She lamented to me, “It’s hard because I’m doing all the things I thought I was supposed to, but I’m just not happy.”

My other friend is a bit younger. She graduated college two years ago, and in the time since, she has come face to face with the reality that a degree from a good school does not equal a job where people are nice and the work is meaningful. When we met for coffee, she leaned in and almost whispered across the table, “I feel like the degree I got is pointless. And I feel like a failure because I have a crappy job. And I don’t even want to tell my mom because she’s so proud of me.”

Both of my friends are having their own crisis moments catalyzed by a sense of disillusionment with work. While disillusionment happens for a variety of reasons, one big one is that many of us carry around a set of dysfunctional beliefs about what work and calling are supposed to look like.

Let’s call these “Myths of Vocation.” When I use the word “myth” I mean it in the sense that it is a widely held, but false, idea. Myths of vocation include things like:

If I check all the boxes, I’ll be fulfilled.
My calling = my job.
I’m called to only one thing.
It all happens right away.

And there are others. Many others, actually.

These myths of vocation are products of the interconnected realities of a rapidly changing world, systemic forces such as privilege and power, and the pursuit to answer the very human questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? What difference do I make? Our friends over at the Fuller Youth Institute [1]have taught me a lot about these three questions. Namely, that whether we’re twenty-five, forty-five, or sixty-five, and whether these questions ring loud enough to be the daily soundtrack in our head or seem to hum along at a quieter tone, like background music—questions of identity, purpose, and belonging are at the core of life for so many of us.

For me, questions about identity, purpose, and belonging are all questions about vocation. Who has God made me to be? Where do I belong in God’s kingdom? And given those two realities, What kind of impact can my life have? However we ask them, these are the important and helpful questions that resurface throughout our life. And it is all too easy to answer these questions with one of the many myths of vocation—to find ourselves disillusioned about the promises we thought the world had made.

At the De Pree Center, we’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with myths of vocation. As we’ve sat with data, collected stories, and worked to synthesize the most helpful thinkers on vocation, we decided we wanted to make our conversation more public.

So, as a starting point, we’ve developed a resource aimed at helping us unravel four myths of vocation together.

If I check all the boxes, I’ll be fulfilled.
My calling = my job.
I’m called to only one thing.
It all happens right away.

These are not meant to be an exhaustive list, in fact just the opposite. We hope that this project is the start of an ongoing set of resources that help people work together to name myths, explain where they come from, reframe vocation from a biblical perspective, and engage in spiritual practices that help form us for the journey ahead.

Download Myths of Vocation



[1] Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin identified three primary questions that 18­–29-year-olds ask: “Who am I?” (identity); “Where do I fit?” (belonging); and “What difference to do I make?” (purpose). Although these questions did not emerge in these explicit forms through the Growing Young research, their themes are each essential for vocation. Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 116.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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