Vocation and Avocation

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 5, 2010 · 11 comments

in Blog

Editor’s note: In conjunction with the series we’re doing on vocation and calling, we will be publishing excerpts from Self-Culture Through the Vocation by Edward Howard Griggs (1914).

Vocation and Avocation

Even when one succeeds in avoiding the dangers of the specific calling, in any vocation one may discover, after a time, that one has used up much of the opportunity for culture and, sometimes, even for service. Routine repetition teaches, but not what original achievement taught. If one needs heroic ability for dead work, to make the vocation a way of life one needs, as well, capacity for constant readjustment and the grasping of fresh opportunity. When one has achieved supremely, it is time to do something else. Success may tempt one to travel the same rutworn road again, where failure challenges one to make a fresh start.

When one discovers that the best lessons have been learned in a certain field of work and the main contribution given, what then is to be done? More often than, in this country especially, we are apt to believe possible, one may change one’s work. We are so anxious to get settled early in life that we are apt to think the first friendship we form is our life comradeship. Sometimes it is, much more often it distinctly is not. So we imagine the first significant work we find is our life call. Sometimes it is; more often it is but a stepping-stone in the path. Thus if we were willing to estimate life in terms higher than money and reputation, more often than usually seems possible we might pass from one opportunity to another.

Thoreau, you remember, set out in youth to make a composition pencil superior to the imported graphite one. After some experiments and labor, he succeeded, and his friends thought that now his success in life was assured and his path settled. To their surprise and chagrin he refused ever to make another. “Why should I? I have learned that lesson. Why should I repeat myself?” Unpractical, even foolish, but sublimely foolish; and Thoreau’s choice may serve as a whimsical illustration of that spirit of ever pushing onward which is the sound attitude in the vocation.

Often, however, we may not follow freely the choice and need of our own spirit. We have accepted responsibilities, and must loyally fulfill them. The way to a larger opportunity is never meanly sneaking out from under the little duty of to-day, but climbing bravely through it and off the top; and then the better chance usually comes. Thus often one must, for duty’s sake, continue in a field of work quite inadequate for the fullest culture and service.

Even then there is something we may do: we may cultivate an avocation in the margin of life. It is true, the words “vocation” and “avocation ” are currently used synonymously. That is a pity: to waste two words on one idea when both are needed for distinct conceptions. A man’s vocation is his business in life; his avocation is his business aside from his business in life. The one is the main line of action; the other, the thing he does in addition, because he chooses it.

For instance, we think of William Cullen Bryant as a poet — the earliest of our distinctively artistic American poets. We forget that William Cullen Bryant paid running expenses in the business of his life by working year after year at his desk in New York as journalist, and that the poetry, by which he always will be remembered, was achieved in the margin of life that most persons waste.

So John Stuart Mill is to us a great democrat, leader of the woman’s movement, radical thinker, writer of texts in logic and political economy that remain among the best we have. Again we forget that Mill paid running expenses in the business of his life by working for thirty-five years, from the age of seventeen to that of fifty-two, six days in the week, eleven months in the year, at his desk in the office of the East India Company in London, drafting telegrams and letters for the government of the native states of India; and all the great work by which the world will remember him was done in the margin of time most persons waste and some deliberately try to kill. “Killing time”—murdering opportunity!

I recall, in the letters of Matthew Arnold, published some years ago, several passages in which Arnold expresses his regret that he cannot write poetry and criticism as he would, because of the dissipating effect of his duties as Inspector of Schools. It comes over one with a shock of surprise that Matthew Arnold — poet, essayist, leader in advanced thinking in his generation — earned his living by the exhausting labor of inspecting schools and reporting upon them to the British government, and that his literary work represents an avocation, pursued in such leisure as he could command.

Now it is a pity that England should have kept John Stuart Mill for thirty five years in the office of the East India Company, and that she should have held Matthew Arnold for the same period of time to the wearisome task of School Inspector. The right attitude for Mill and Arnold, however, was not to do as so many young persons who like to think they have the artistic temperament are apt to do — to sit down and bewail the world’s failure to appreciate their greatness, to complain that some rich man does not send them to Europe, that they must remain “mute, inglorious Miltons “— not to do that; but to go earnestly to work and earn their living in some honest vocation, and do the other thing also, as an avocation.

With this combination of activities, the culture through the vocation is multiplied. Read the two brief but pregnant pages in which John Stuart Mill tells of the education that came to him from his thirty-five years’ work for the East India Company — how he learned statesmanship, to make ideas prevail, to adjust his own convictions to the minds of others, to get the best possible when he could not attain all he desired — and you realize that if nine out of ten of our college professors and writers in sociology and political economy were forced to take ten years of Mill’s drudgery, we should have far saner teaching and much wiser books in the fields mentioned.

Blessed, therefore, is the man or woman with a hobby, with some big, strong, intellectual or artistic interest aside from the main line of work. In the arithmetic of the spirit two things may be less than one. If your life is very much over-burdened with routine work, then add another task, and the strain of the whole is less than that of the part. This cannot be shown in a sum upon the blackboard, but it is easy to prove in life. Every student ought to know that if he has just so many hours to work, and will subtract one hour a day and spend it in healthy play or vigorous physical action, he has more time left for his studies…

Thus in the main path of life it is true that two tasks are often done more easily than one, and the cultivation of some strong interest as an avocation, not only achieves the direct result there, but sends one back to the vocation refreshed, inspired, and so better equipped to attain the great ends of life.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ryan June 5, 2010 at 4:12 am

The “margin of life” phrase really struck a chord with me here. No more killing time and murdering opportunity for me!

Awesome post.

2 Kevin June 5, 2010 at 11:55 am

One of the best pieces you’ve published in the year or so I’ve been reading. Lots of good info here. Thank you.

3 Zeno Izen June 5, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Love this topic. It’s been kicking around in the dusty parts of my mind for so long now, but you’ve put it out in the front where it can finally become clear. Awesome, you.

Also, it’s amusing that the “Film Director” post has popped up as a related post, because of that classic joke about “but what I really want to do is direct.”

The myth of passion, how many lives has it crippled?

4 Mike M. June 5, 2010 at 7:28 pm

This post reminds me of a couple of brothers who ran a bike shop. Sell bikes, fix bikes, and occasionally work on the gadget in the back of the shop.

Something called an airplane.

5 Andre Sanchez June 5, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Maybe it would be more helpful to think of your “day job” as being the one “on the margins of life”. However, I’m not sure I can really embrace the idea that you should pursue a vocation as a hobby. A vocation that cannot be pursued “full time” sounds strange to me. Of course you have “obligations” in life (starting with the “obligation” to eat), but that’s sort of the point of having a vocation. A vocation is that line of work that you are best suited for (whatever the reasons). If you can’t make a living from it, it’s probably not really your vocation. It’s one thing to spend time at a “day job” in order to earn the necessary capital to invest in your work (buying the food that sustains you while you write that novel), something nearly everyone has to do on some level. But a vocation that is a peripheral aspect of your life?

All is vanity, said Solomon. All is empty. I wonder if the need to change vocation is not more an attempt to escape from a feeling of lack by just shifting attention to something new, hoping the newness will fulfill you.

6 Giles June 7, 2010 at 3:03 am

Excellent post, maybe even the best yet. I love the upside down idea of when you feel like one task is taking all of your time then the solution is to add another and then both will be done in the same time. I think this goes to the heart of that over busy feeling that I’m sureis familiar to us all. But I wonder also if thinking about certain parts of our as the margins devalues them? Anyway great post.

7 Timmy June 7, 2010 at 9:44 am

I think you missed the distinction; a “vocation” that cannot pursued full-time is not what this article was about. Instead, it was about “avocations”, which is what you can fill your additional free time up with. The point being, those things that cannot make money (examples above were poetry, etc) may still result in ones greatest achievements.

I think the key to this whole post is not seeing any part of your life as “peripheral”, but on seeing the vocation and avocation as two necessary components of your life. As long as the time that would have gone to an avocation is seen as secondary, it is bound to be wasted.

8 mens designer t-shirts June 8, 2010 at 3:41 am

Another fascinating post guys! I myself run a clothing label in my spare time (it will soon prove as a full-time living). My life, from the outside looking in, probably looks a bit dull because all I seem to do is work, but then again I’m aiming for the world of self-employed freedom, where I will have the last laugh! Ha!

9 Mike June 9, 2010 at 2:33 pm

This part really hit a chord with me.

“So we imagine the first significant work we find is our life call. Sometimes it is; more often it is but a stepping-stone in the path. Thus if we were willing to estimate life in terms higher than money and reputation, more often than usually seems possible we might pass from one opportunity to another.”

As a 25 year old graduate, with a calling to full time Christian ministry, I suffer through day in and day out of dead work, worrying that I’ll be stuck here for the rest of my life. It’s so encouraging to remember the stepping stones on this path. I’ve had to give up promotions, better paying jobs and multiple opportunities that would afford me much money and reputation, but even though my focus is on the goal, I sometimes forget to honor God on the path.

Thank you for the reminder.

10 Steven Masters June 23, 2010 at 5:23 pm

This article is inspiring. Thanks. It gives me and understanding of the opportunity before me.

11 Mikey Bricks September 18, 2012 at 6:53 pm


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