The Best Way to Find Your Vocation

by Brett & Kate McKay on July 21, 2011 · 66 comments

in Money & Career

Occasionally, you read articles that make such an impression on you that you find yourself chewing them over for days and even months afterwards.

Such was the case for me recently with a great column I read a couple of weeks ago by David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times. Pondering the recent wave of college graduations, Brooks laments the ways in which our culture ill-prepares young people for life after school. He writes:

“If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

Today’s graduates are also told to find their passion and then pursue their dreams. The implication is that they should find themselves first and then go off and live their quest. But, of course, very few people at age 22 or 24 can take an inward journey and come out having discovered a developed self.

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life…Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”

Within those few paragraphs, Brooks lays out the very best way to find a vocation. Indeed, it’s how I found mine.

How I “Found” My Vocation

A lot of AoM readers email me to ask for advice about what they should do with their lives. They feel like I might have some good insight into their dilemma since I seem to have been successful in finding my own vocation.

But I honestly didn’t really “find” my vocation, because I never actually went looking for it. Instead, it’s something I sort of stumbled into.

The idea for the Art of Manliness came to me in 2008 as I was browsing the men’s magazine section in a bookstore. It occurred to me that every month the men’s magazines put out the same old stuff: how to get six pack abs, how to bed as many women as possible, how to go on exotic trips most men will never be able to afford, and how to buy clothes that were well outside my budget. Most of the content just didn’t appeal to me. “Surely there is more to being a man than this,” I thought.

As I was driving home, my mind turned from the magazines to the men I knew who were my age, 20-somethings, recent college graduates. It seemed to me that a lot of them were a little lost in life. Many had grown up without the strong influence of a father–they came from divorced families, or if their dad was in the picture, he worked a lot and hadn’t spent too much time with his son. Even when guys had come from stable, loving, two parent families, they often felt a sense of restlessness or drift–they weren’t sure what to do with their lives, or even what they should want out of life. And they weren’t sure what it meant to be a good man.

I realized that I didn’t really know either. And that it was hard to blame us–the popular culture certainly didn’t offer any answers. The men on sitcoms and commercials were always presented as bumbling, dithering idiots that couldn’t do anything right; their more competent wives were left to roll their eyes and clean up their messes. And the men in movies were either meatheads who liked to blow stuff up, or immature man-children (I’m looking at you Judd Apatow).

Finally, I thought about my grandpa. The man was far from perfect, but he sure knew how to do a lot of things that I didn’t. It seemed like many of the skills and traditions that had been passed down from generation to generation had stopped being taught.

By the time I got home, an idea for a new blog was percolating in my head. I decided to start a totally new kind of men’s magazine. One with the kind of stuff I’d actually want to read. One that helped men understand what it meant to be a man and gain a sense of direction in their lives. A magazine that rediscovered the classic skills of yesteryear so that men could feel confident and competent in a variety of situations. Something that could be both serious and fun. A magazine that could inspire men to reach for excellence and attain their full potential.

I definitely wasn’t approaching it as an expert who wanted to share his vast wisdom with others. I didn’t consider myself especially manly, I didn’t have some long standing interest in manliness, and I hadn’t really studied the subject at all. I approached it from the perspective that like a lot of guys out there, I had a bunch of questions that I didn’t have the answers to, so I would dive into the best research I could find, and then share what I had discovered on the blog. Instead of telling other men what to do, they could use the information as a catalyst to think about their own lives and make the changes that were best for them.

With that in mind, I started the Art of Manliness in 2008. I figured it could be a fun hobby, something I could work on as a side project while I made a career as a lawyer. I thought maybe a few hundred guys would discover it and find it helpful.

Of course three and a half years later, the Art of Manliness has grown to a 100,000 subscriber blog and become my full-time job. I’m still not an expert in manliness–still just a guy looking for the answers. But along the way I found my vocation. Not by looking within, and deciding that a website for men was what I was born to do, but simply by noticing a problem, and working as hard as possible to fill that void.

How Can You Find Your Vocation?

There are many ways that finding a problem to solve can lead to finding your vocation. You may lament how apathetic high school students are about history because they’re taught by football coaches and decide to become a teacher that instills a love of learning in his students. You may be unhappy with the inefficiency of some piece of technology and work to improve it. Perhaps a family member becomes the victim of a violent crime, and you decide to become a police officer to get more criminals off the street. Perhaps your father dies of cancer, so you become a scientist looking for a cure. Or maybe you find yourself frustrated when trying to buy a certain product and decide to start a business that will make the process much easier. And the list could go on and on.

So finding a problem and making your life’s work to solve that problem, that’s the best find to find your vocation. But it’s definitely not the only way.

Last year we did a six part series about finding your vocation that I think is one of the best things we’ve ever done on the site. In many ways it takes the approach of looking within to find your passions and calling. So I actually do not think it’s a wrongheaded approach.

Not everyone will find their vocation by finding a problem to solve. My dad didn’t become a game warden because he thought there was a problem with poaching that he could especially address. You don’t have to think there’s a problem with fires, to become a firefighter. Your vocation can simply be something you have always been drawn to doing, something that you’re good at and enjoy. The job doesn’t have to be glamorous either.

I was talking to my cousin’s wife a few weeks ago about her husband’s job. He works as an insurance adjuster. I asked her how he likes his job and she said, “You know, it’s not the kind of job you dream about doing as a kid. But his personality makes him really well suited for it. He’s able to be so patient with irate customers and help solve their problems. He’s good at it, so he enjoys it.”

While you may not find your career by looking to solve a problem, once you’re in that career, looking for problems within that job is what turns any work into a vocation and brings lasting satisfaction. How can I make meetings more efficient? How can we improve sales? How can I better reach these kids? The more we lose ourselves in making the world a little better, even in small ways, the happier and more fulfilled we become.

As David Brooks ends his column:

“Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task.”

{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nathaniel Phillips July 21, 2011 at 5:28 pm

I thank you for posting this. It clarifies and defines what young men should do: Look objectively at their circumstances, and to find a problem worth fixing, or a talent that needs work.

2 SheepLute July 21, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Very good article.

3 James July 21, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Very good observations, especially the insight into how you came to start this great website/blog.

This has been one of the main “issues” in my life, along with many other young men. I’ve found great jobs and hobbies, but always struggled getting into a solid “career” and having a true passion. After countless attempts, I stopped trying. I don’t mean that I sat around all day eating cupcakes watching reality t.v waiting for the world to come to me, but I decided to just go with the flow. I began talking with friends who were very happy in this area of their lives, and also those who were not. I started to chart out in my mind the things I really do enjoy, and truly love, doing.

I then took a giant jump from a solid job in which I had built a good reputation, and was making very fair money, and took some classes in an area that was related, however focused more on what I always enjoyed doing for fun.

I’m now interning at a great company, doing small freelance gigs, and learning everyday that I really enjoy what I’m doing. As an offshoot, I found a new hobby which I completely fell into, and I’m constantly wanting to learn and do more.

None of this would have happened without taking chances and making decisions, however I also don’t believe any of it would have happened had I forced myself into it.

4 Nathaniel July 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Awesome post!

What’s interesting to me is that I’ve read through almost all the entries in the “So You Want My Job” series, and you always ask “Why did you want to become a ___” When did you know it was what you wanted to do?” And almost all of them didn’t know they wanted their job, they just kind of fell into it, and it turned out it they loved it.

5 Steven Carpenter July 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Great article. But I am conflicted. I’m nearly certain I want to go to law school for animal/environmental law. Surely, there is a problem in this arena. And while it hassn’t been a dream of mine since I was a kid I am trying to follow what I suppressed in high school. But I am paranoid as hell I won’t make it. And I am trying to find motivation becuase I know it is going to be ALOT of work. But am I supposed be certain this is what to do? My mind never shuts up!

6 David W. July 21, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Finding your vocation is a tricky thing nowadays. I’m not so sure we are even a generation of one vocation anymore. We change interests like we change our socks. But it’s not bad. It’s just important to be passionate and interested. That will make the vocation stick.

Great article! I hope I keep finding my vocation.

7 d3rf July 21, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Great insight on a perennial issue men have to deal with. I myself am in that point in life where I am in a fork in the road. It’s quite a conundrum to know which to follow, your heart or where life actually takes you. Just as long as you know what is essential, what is really important in life – that makes the choosing easier.

8 Jacques July 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Good article – you’re blessed, as you built this great blog and community. Still, some ‘pop cult’ reflection:

“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life…the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives, some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.”

Baz Luhrmann – Wear sunscreen

9 John Benton July 21, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Very nice article. While I know what direction I want to go in life, I know many of my friends are kind of listless and getting a degree in something they enjoy rather than something they’re passionate about. And a number of them have graduated only to work a year and go back to college. It’s definitely a hard path to trod, and no one tells you how to do it anymore.

10 JayDig July 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Excellent post! I read the column by David Brooks and couldn’t help noticing how much he writes like Dr. David K. Reynolds, who developed Constructive Living. Thank you for the very sensible advice.

11 Scott Lee July 21, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Great post! First time visitor here.

I too struggle with this. I’m gifted with skills and talents that enable me to be successful at my job but I wouldn’t say it’s what I do. I find comfort in those around (both in age (29) and life) who often answer the “What do you do” question with. Well I work at ______. But what I do is ______. I work as a cashier, but in my free time I volunteer as a Big Brother. We my work at places like Home Depot, but what we do is serve our community.

Let’s not get caught up in letting our job define us. It’s what we DO that defines us.

12 Bubba July 21, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Whoa…you’ve also brought up a tantalizing idea here…that of an ink-and-paper magazine. I for one would absolutely love watching AoM go to the next level, from an online collection of posts to a fully-portable periodical!

13 Damberson July 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm

Spot on about the Men’s magazines. Art of Manliness should produce a monthly publication. It could be a combination of National Geographic, Outdoor, Popular Mechanics, Men’s Health, and the Economist. Why not take the best of each of these and put them in one magazine? This site reminds me of a Boy Scout Handbook for adults.

14 jg July 21, 2011 at 11:35 pm

question of the day:

how to realize your talent?

15 Rob July 21, 2011 at 11:40 pm

I love this website it hits home with me everytime I take a peek at it thank you for doing what you’re doing

16 Dhruv July 21, 2011 at 11:55 pm

Great article!

According to eastern philosophies, your vocation (dharma, as they call it) is made up of three things:
1) What you’re good at
2) What you like doing
3) What the community needs

The first two are given plenty of importance, as David Brooks states, and its nice to see an article that highlights the importance of the last.

17 Chris July 22, 2011 at 12:06 am

This site has aided me in so many ways, specifically in growing out of adolescence and into and adult, and finding my vocation. Brett, I am with a couple other posters, if you make a hard copy monthly magazine, you definitely have at least one subscriber with me!

18 Brent W. Buchanan July 22, 2011 at 2:01 am

As much as I love the sillier posts on here such as Pirate Primers and what have you, the posts like this one that stimulate the mind and cushion the curiosity are the ones that keep me coming back. You are young and filled with great ideas, and have wonderful insight from your wife as well. Overall, i believe you two make a very swell team and have some thought intriguing and responsible things to share. Keep doing what you’re doing.

19 The Counselor July 22, 2011 at 2:27 am

@ Steven Carpenter

If animal/environmental law is your true passion, it’s commendable to pursue it. Speaking as an attorney, however, I will warn you that right now the legal industry is a severe state of turmoil. To give an illustration, in an ‘ideal’ economic climate the US economy grows about 23,000 new law jobs a year (factoring in retirements and commercial expansion) while US law schools graduate over 40,000 new JDs annually. This means that in a ‘great’ economic climate, nearly half of law school graduates will be forced to work outside of their chosen profession. You can imagine how bad the legal employment numbers are now.

This is not meant to discourage your dream, but rather to give you some useful information that you won’t find on many law school prospective student pages. Pursue your chosen specialty by all means, but also give some focus to contracts, civil procedure and some of the more mundane classes—these are, in practice, likely to be your bread and butter as an attorney, and it helps to have a skill set you can support yourself on until you manage to get into the specialty you really want to pursue. Also, rather than blow the bank account on the most expensive law school possible, choose one that will give you a good, solid education with little student loan debt. It’s frustrating to have your short- and medium-term financial goals dictated by that loan repayment schedule, and if you can minimise this it is certainly worth it.

20 john parker July 22, 2011 at 2:59 am

Growing old very disgracefully and incredibly happily (i currently wake up and find myself surprisingly in my late 40s), i look around me and find myself in a lifetime career as a signwriter and gilder. I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, and i’m surprisingly good at it.

In the 1980s, i failed to get into college because i was too naive and hadn’t really figured out what the hell i wanted to do. I knew i liked drawing and painting and kind of liked the idea of being an artist but, at 20, i just wasn’t equipped to figure out what to do with myself. Then, i fell passionately for a woman with a young boy, moved in and needed work fast. I got bored on a government work creation scheme, i saw that they needed signs, so i started to teach myself how to be a signwriter as a way of getting out of digging holes or making basic carpentry. They provided the paint, and a huge gun emplacement with an open fire to practice in (the space, not the fire….)

Within the year, i knew i’d found something i was really good at, that suited me, and i started in business as a signwriter. 25 years later, i’ve worked around the world, in the houses of parliament, buckingham palace. I’ve had some great adventures and made some wonderful work that very few people will ever see… but i know it’s there, and i made it, and it is good. It’s not always been easy, being self employed. Recessions are hard. I’ve never been rich, but money isn’t the point.

I fell into what i do, kind of by accident, but i fell in a direction that was a line of low resistance and i haven’t looked back. The naive boy who didn’t know what to do with himself got left behind long ago, without a backward glance. And the woman with child? I moved out again, before 6 months were out, and before i started my business. C’est la vie.

If you want to see what a self taught ex-naive lost boy can do once he finds something he likes; johnthegilder.co.uk has 25 years of my work on it. Don’t give up, but most importantly, don’t stop trying, and take every opportunity. You must take your opportunities.

21 Greg July 22, 2011 at 4:57 am

I would like to add something that was touched upon briefly at the start of the article regarding leaving school/college without necessary ‘life’ skills.

At school we had a ‘preparation for life’ class, where we were taught about contraception, racism, CV writing etc in great detail. 20 years later, I have found that the skills and knowledge that should have been taught, however boring, is things like pension plans, insurance policies, job applications and interview techniques, bank accounts, tax, heck, even dating. Things that really matter and are unavoidable when you get out into the big wide world and start earning a living.

22 Jason M July 22, 2011 at 6:37 am

Reading this column makes me think about how I am thankful that I found my vocation. I never dreamed about being a logistics officer in the US Air Force. But, that’s where I am, I love what I do, and I feel I’m good at it. Plus, I have some good stories, and got some opportunities I never would have had if I did not follow this path.

23 Darren July 22, 2011 at 7:36 am

Spot on, again. Two things to consider:

1) I left a very secure and comfortable government job for a chancy, who-knows-what-will-happen job that turned into the business I now own. Everyone says “Wow, that was ballsy” or whatever, but the truth is that I had to do it. HAD TO DO IT. It was not a choice for me…I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do. God had a lot to do with it, but that’s another story.

2) Those who stay in a secure, government job are not at all inferior to those who take risks. Risk is a very personal thing. A lot of folks comment on how much courage it takes to do that, but like George Bailey, it takes a lot of courage NOT to do it. Men and women sacrifice their ambitions for following their dreams because of the risk to the innocents involved. A guy with six kids continues to a do a job that he doesn’t particularly like but pays very well…because he has a family to feed. He doesn’t become an actor like he always wanted to be. That guy was my father. His courage was to suck it up and take care of business.

A lot of my government worker friends were not allowed to be that creative in their jobs, so they found fulfillment outside their 9-5s. One data entry operator was a blue-ribbon quilter at the Wisconsin State Fair (and we have a lot of Amish!). One had a DJ business that paid more than he made, but he stayed for the insurance for his wife and four kids. Another was an amazing guitarist who played in local bands. So it’s not just where you work, and we are not defined by our jobs. It would be nice if men would stop asking each other at cocktail parties, “So, what do you do?” I mean, why not get out a ruler and settle the matter once and for all? I have a friend who studied Buddhism and he always asks people “What is your passion?” Works much better.

A friend of mine jumped three times, and landed on his face, until the fourth time he landed in a great position (he build a portable pizza oven and caters parties and weddings). I’m lucky…I jumped, and after stumbling, I landed on one foot, and I’m still trying to get my footing 100%. Many jump and land on their faces…and crawl back, bloodied and waiting for a chance to try again someday. Those are the courageous ones.

Shutting up now…

24 Rhonda July 22, 2011 at 7:38 am

Have you done any kind of survey to see how many of your subscribers are women? I for one read your blogs faithfully. I find them entertaining, informative and nostalgic.
I have forwarded several of your blogs to men that I thought might enjoy a certain topic that you address.
Thank you for providing a service that is truly needed.

25 Mark July 22, 2011 at 7:57 am

I’m a Registered Nurse (Government employee). A couple of years ago I decided to invest in some real estate. I sold my house and bought a boarding house. I could have taken students in it (as was recommended by the real estate agent) but chose to take in homeless and disadvantaged men. (I’m divorced and probably couldn’t have done this if I had a wife). After living with them for a year, I decided I didn’t like the way charities treated them. So I created my own. I was 48 when I created the charity.

Maybe you don’t have to find your vocation when you are in your 20′s OR maybe I am a slow learner.

There are DVDs out there that can facilitate your transformation. David Deangelo’s “Become Mr Right” is a good series.

26 Bret Mavrich July 22, 2011 at 8:26 am

I was just thinking this morning about a book I read when I was just getting out of college. It was more or less about “finding your passion.” I was comparing that notion, then, to many of the men I know a generation older than me, many whom have worked their entire lives according to an ethic of responsibility, commitment, and honor. But not passion. Now that we know where both end up, though, maybe there’s a middle way?

27 Jacob July 22, 2011 at 8:43 am

Youth tends to reflect pop culture, which is a scary thing with the destructive influence that is rampant. Your website stands against the “dismal tide”. Your work matters. Fight the Good Fight.

28 Warren Peese July 22, 2011 at 9:09 am

Thanks for a very good article. A lot of men, like me, were looking for a way to make a living and found themselves changing jobs until they found something in which they were good enough to not only keep their job, but get a.) encouraging accolades from supervisors, b.) raises in salary, and c.) promotions and recognition. Reminds me of what Pavototti said, “everybody sings, but its how people respond to your efforts that keeps you singing.” BTW, regarding that excerpt from David Brooks; probably the most insightful thing he has ever written. Most of his stuff is so absurdly wrong, it makes me physically sick.

29 Brandi July 22, 2011 at 9:14 am

I’m a gal & have been a subscriber for quite some time! I constantly forward these articles to my friends, 18-year old nephew & print out copies of some to take home to my 3 sons (ages 11, 7 & 6). They especially loved the recent, “Pirates Every Man Should Know!” I have also learned much myself. Lots of the articles discuss things that would never occur to me to talk about with my boys. Very helpful! Thanks!

30 Lindsey July 22, 2011 at 10:07 am

I too am a gal who enjoys reading the art of manliness. So much so that I referenced, “The Art of Manliness” today on my small personal blog. It made me wonder if Kate McKay has any plans on starting a blog for, “The Art of Womanhood” or something of the sort.

For the most part I feel that AoM covers ground for both the sexes in reality. Though, it would be nice to have a women’s magazine of such intellectual and stimulating material.

Thank you both for your sharing your writing with us,
Lindsey

31 Jason July 22, 2011 at 10:09 am

I came to my current profession the same way, fell into it.

I went to college, the first time, for fine arts: painting. Right out of high school I knew all I ever wanted to do was paint! So college to become a better painter and all that. After college was another story. Working a couple part time job to pay the bills, making art and having shows and not really selling, just wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more, much more. After a major set back I had to move back home and after being out of work for a few months I eventually landed a job at a new museum. The job at the museum turned into a career as a Facility Manager and I absolutely fell in love with FMing!

After out-growing that position I moved to the east coast to get a degree in facility management and am currently working as an FM for Harvard part time!

Now, even this is changing as I find myself drawn more and more into the budding realm of sustainability! Who knows what the future holds!

If there is one thing I have learned out of all this is that it is never too late to pursue what you love! All it requires is the courage to change your current situation.

Like sustainability? Check my blog: http://www.sustainifed.org

32 tim_lebsack July 22, 2011 at 11:36 am

Good article.
Just days ago, a co-employee, probably in his 60′s, referring to his latest position said “I’ve finally found something I’m great at.”

33 Sean M July 22, 2011 at 11:59 am

Previous generations often suffered through their jobs and got their joy from their family. Young people today are conditioned to find an occupation that is not only a source of income, but a thrilling, challenging passion. As we become more affluent as a society, our expectations increase, and now our careers are supposed to give us meaning and fulfillment.

34 Eric July 22, 2011 at 12:27 pm

This is a great article, if only because it implies that a man had better *try* to find a vocation.
I’m a 33 year old man entering into his second career, with his second graduate degree, and I have got to tell you that is not the way I had hoped things would go. I wanted be in a solid lifelong career almost ten years ago and it didn’t happen. One of the only things I can take pride in is that, man, when I was nineteen I bugged out of home and hit the ground running. Ever since then I’ve tried like an animal to find the right way.
I’m just saying that even though I haven’t arrived yet, since I was about 17 or 18 I knew I had to do something to fill the time. I knew I had to throw a Hail Mary pass, and it makes me sad to see a lot of guys just hang out throughout their 20′s until it’s not cute anymore.
I really feel what you say about culture telling men that we’re narrow-minded misogynists, and one of the alternatives is to turn into overgrown children. It took me a long time to figure out that’s not what I want, it’s not what women want, and I’m glad I’ve learned it before I become a father. It’s a great way to become a permanent victim. I’m glad I was so scared of wasting my life that I ran out into the world pell-mell.

35 Chris French July 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I find that when I keep going home and doing something that I don’t get paid to do – coding a website or writing a blog or whatever – that eventually my brain starts thinking up ways to somehow turn that into my “job”. Some successful, some not so much, but all rewarding in one way or another.

36 mark schäperkötter July 22, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Another great article, thank you very much.
There’s a fantastic book that takes your point to the philosophical level as applied to physics.: The beginning of infinity by David Deutsch. Even if you’re not interested in physics or cosmology its arguments are still very much worth the read, and seem to coincide with your view on problemsolving.
Deutsch BTW is no vague new age guru, but a very solid professor of computer science.

Best regards,
Mark

37 Jon July 22, 2011 at 5:10 pm

I agree with the idea that risk is incredibly personal. A flaw I’ve noticed in myself though is that immediate desire to judge those who work that “stable” job and never tried to become something better.

I’m moving to Newark, NJ (20 minutes by train to NYC) in a month with a 3.0 GPA Economics degree from a ho-hum college in hopes of being a trader or analyst on Wall Street by 30 (I’m 25, I was in the Army for a while). Oddly enough, I have never felt so “stable” in what I want and who I am.

When you realize what you are doing isn’t making you happy, a risk to find your ideal life is all you’ve got left (my work now is fine for now but I could NEVER do it as a career). I see so many people just tolerating life and not digging in. When you have responsibilities (kids, sick wife, excessive debt etc.) I get not moving to LA to become an actor. But if you’re single and have the desire, you have NO excuse not to go after your ideal life.

38 Terbreugghen July 22, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Also @ Steven Carpenter: I’d second “The Counsellor’s” advice about law school. My wife got her JD a few years ago at a good state school at a reasonable price. But before she went we had a dialogue about why this made sense because we knew it was going to get unpleasant and it would make no sense to go and then drop out. Being a mature student was a plus for her. But the main thing I wanted to say was that I think there might be something to being 80 years old and not having to wonder “what if,” even if that answer is “no.”

I loved this article from start to finish because it (and many of the comments after) confirmed in many ways my own experience. Left home at 18 for the Marines. After a short tour went to college for art and dropped out because it made no sense to me then. I was also working an apprenticeship in photoengraving (back when it was done by hand). Married, had a family, worked my trade, but was restless. Put my wife through college at age 28, she got a good job out of it, and then I went back for my art degree. After my trade was computerized got work as an illustrator, and finished my graduate degree, now I’m a tenured professor of art at a small southern college and I love it. In the course of my duties I advise “general studies” students, i.e., students who are often talented, but directionless. I always point them in the direction of Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich.” I also ask them what’s “wrong with the world today,” and try to use that as a way to get at what problems they see that need solutions and then try to get them to see their own lives in the context of helping solve them. My own life didn’t “take off” per se, but it did move in the right direction when I decided that one big problem our culture has is that we’ve put the arts and humanities into a tight little box and lost the reason why they matter. In fact humanities scholars themselves (ourselves?) are the biggest part of the problem by being unwilling or even unable to explain why their discipline matters in plain language and a few sentences. I’m out there changing the world one classroom at a time and I wake up smiling every day. I wish that for everyone, and I think it starts with claiming a problem that needs our help.

39 Levi July 23, 2011 at 5:16 am

I teach as well, and I love most of it. I was also in the Marines, and I liked about half of that. I constantly have students confused about what they’ll do with their lives, so I tell them to join the military. You learn sacrifice, you see other groups of people you’d have never associated with voluntarily, you make a fairly good salary for an 18 year old, and tuition is free as long as you’re in. Worth the risk. They can always ignore me… this is, after all, public education.

1. Passion has nothing to do with making a living. Most of the old men in my Church and my Lodge just found something they were good enough at, and they stuck with it for the benefit of those they love. I’m sure my grandfather would rather have farmed and played with his kids than to have been suspended from a harness welding smokestacks. I’m sure my father would rather have been a full-time firefighter than driving trucks cross-country.

2. The search for passion is precisely why we have aimless men. Everyone thinks they’re too important to do something that -frankly- sucks. Some of the most driven young men I know are teen parents who are forced to keep jobs. Speaking of which:

3. Most men forget that once they commit to a family, their lives are no longer about themselves. So why did I become a teacher, if not for passion? Dependable salary, decent benefits, I’m good at it, and I get off work when my future kids get out of school. Besides, everywhere I went, I ended up teaching something. Might as well make that my vocation.

40 Brandon July 23, 2011 at 11:27 am

Just wanted to say thanks for doing what you’re doing.

I found AoM just a few weeks ago (while searching for how to sharpen a knife) and was immediately hooked! As a new father of twin boys, I’m going to need all the man skills I can get.

41 'Drew July 23, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Enjoyed the article. Some of the points reminded me of what Bly shared in “Iron John”, (I paraphrase) that when re-emerging from the wounded phase, a man may find calling from transformation of his weakness or wound in order that a need in community may be fulfilled.

42 Core July 24, 2011 at 7:58 am

“”"Finally, I thought about my grandpa. The man was far from perfect, but he sure knew how to do a lot of things that I didn’t. It seemed like many of the skills and traditions that had been passed down from generation to generation had stopped being taught.”"”"”

Something to think about, is this…
Kid’s were not mandated to go to school for awhile. So they worked with their fathers, and learned of the world through actual interactions with it.. rather than sitting in classroom all day away from family and reading about stuff..

So their in lays one big ass problem.

(nothing wrong with reading…)

43 Mark Parbus July 24, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Sometimes we just have to listen to the little hints from our friends, relatives and circumstances. If we try too hard to find our calling, we may miss the subtle suggestions that will show us the way.

44 Steven McCarthy July 25, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I’m afraid narcissism is killing us on many fronts. One of the weighty reasons that I am passionate about my vocation is that I’m burdened by the sense of an external need to fulfill it. Yet, when people ask me why I am training for my vocation, I always feel awkward focusing on need as a primary motivation. Instead, I feel the need to focus on myself, my gifts, my desires. This post will encourage me to resist that feeling. Thank you for this post.

45 Drew Danburry July 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I’m glad you found your vocation. I think there’s a whole world of people who don’t know themselves or understand themselves enough to know what makes them happy, let alone find a job that satisfies them for longer than a few years. I know that I’ve felt that way in the past and I’m glad that the Art of Manliness is there to offer a different perspective on life and manhood. It’s a perspective I agree with and find daily inspiration from.

46 Ulises Hernandez July 26, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Amazing post. I just discovered AoM and I’m hooked! (I don’t know how to “subscribe” though, I don’t know anything about blogging, but I would if I knew how!).

Anywho, I’d like to ask for assistance:

I’m great at playing guitar and I love it. I wanted to be a concertist classical guitarist. But my dad lured me away from that and explored my other passion, languages. I know am taking french and enjoying every second of it. I want to take German and Russian too. I already speak Spanish and English fluently along with what my tutor says is 80% fluency in french (this is under a year of learning the language). I want to do something with my language skills, but since I’m also a natural bodybuilder and a green-ecology nature lover, I’ve come up with the idea of eventually setting up my gym in a way that is centered towards the customer, to fit the customer’s needs. I know about gyms, bodybuilding, fitness, powerlifting, and I also want to make the facilities eco-friendly ( you know, have the facility built so that we can make better use of the sunlight, setting up eliptical, stationary bikes and rowing machines so we can “farm” the energy gone into it, stand up desks for the staff’s health (yes I read that article), skylights, low-power luminescent lightbulbs, etc). In europe. I feel very happy with this idea and I’m open to changes if I change my mind, but my question is:

with these talents/passion (languages, bodybuilding & fitness and ecology), what major should I pursue? I’m starting college this fall.
Thanks!

47 The Counselor July 27, 2011 at 1:27 am

@ Ulises Hernandez

I would advise studying business administration. It sounds like you already have a good grasp of languages and what you would need to properly equip your fitness center, but do you know how to balance accounts and organise a company, or how much debt can your business afford to take on buying equipment and still have a chance of breaking even with revenue? Most small businesses fail not because the idea behind them is poor, but rather because the execution of that idea is somehow insufficient. Learning about finance, management, marketing and general accounting will give you a great toolset to complement your other abilities. Every serious business endeavour will need a business plan to give some shape to the idea (even if it’s just in your head or written on an envelope) and studying this will teach you how to properly organise this.

48 Andrew Hunter July 27, 2011 at 1:18 pm

As a first time commenter, I must first say thank you for this site and all of your dialogue, I wish I had found it the day it went live so I would not have missed a moment of its existence.

Second, thank you for this post. I have found myself stuck in the “follow your dreams” v “find a problem” dilemma for decades. The more time I spend working the more I think about how to know, when confronted with vocational choices, which options hold the greatest opportunity for personal fulfillment. Yes, finding a problem that society sees as being valuable to solve is a fast track to a job and external reward, i.e. money and promotion. But it does not inherently equate to personal fulfillment which a good vocation should.

I suppose vocational fulfillment through problem solving would be easy if your dream was to solve any of the world’s problems; you would just have to locate one in great supply that paid well to solve. But, the world having a copious supply of problems does not make the world an aggregate of problems nor solving them a guaranteed source of fulfillment. A problem on its own does not inherently create the opportunity for solution value just as a plant does not grow because the earth needs it to solve its problem of an excessive supply of nutrients.

I think a vocation like all other healthy aspects of our lives is best when born from our most genuine desires: the pursuit of truth and happiness. So the question I think really comes down to what value does a problem’s potential solution have to this pursuit. Because just following any problem for the sake of solving a problem makes us boys tinkering with leaky pipes while we wait for the next great war to make us men.

A good read:

Po Bronson, What Should I Do with my Life

49 Vinicius July 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm

That post was very inspiring.
It’s true when you said that people finds their vocations when trying to solve a problem. My dad found his by helping my grandfather and he is good at it. It was, at the same time, trying to solve a problem and because of the actual circunstances (my grandma died).
And I also read sometime that a man are happy when he fells that he’s being useful. I coudn’t agree more with this.

50 E.N. July 28, 2011 at 9:22 am

I really admired what this article is talking about, and it came to me just in time. Everything that you mentioned, “20-somethings, recent college graduates. It seemed to me that a lot of them were a little lost in life. Many had grown up without the strong influence of a father–they came from divorced families, or if their dad was in the picture, he worked a lot and hadn’t spent too much time with his son” falls into the category that I am in. Currently, I have to decide whether to follow my passion at temporary internship somewhere else, without the guarantee of finding a job, or start working and live with my Dad.

51 Go Hard, Go Fast, Go Again July 28, 2011 at 11:12 am

Thank you from a not so young (50 years) man, and former LAPD Officer (10 years), Firefighter Paramedic (10 years), currently Physician Assistant (9 years) and most importantly Father to four sons (30 years!) I started a family and started working very young. I have enjoyed my life immensely, done well in some things, not so good in others. I have come to learn that no success outside of the home will make up for failure within it. Mostly I just appreciate the work you are doing here… It helps me raise honorable young men, and maybe, just maybe I should go into coaching full time, instead of as a volunteer!? LOL What’s one more profession.? Life is good!

May the Lord bless you and yours with whatever you stand in need of. You are doing a great work. Thank you and keep it coming!!

Joseph J. Hamilton, NREMT-P, PA-C, DAD!!

52 Ryan M August 1, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Here is a great interview with Fred Rogers from 1999:
http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/fred-rogers

In the first few minutes he describes how he found his vocation. It made me think of this article…so I wanted to share it. The simplicity of his explanation was what left such an impression.

The whole interview is worth watching, though. He comes across as someone who really lived a lot of principles that are discussed and valued at AOM.

53 Matt Franklin August 4, 2011 at 11:54 am

My first post of AOM, after reading for the better part of a year:

I agree with everything you’ve said in this article. I think you have grasped the key, one must be passionate about one’s work in order for it to become more than a paycheck. I just wish I were as passionate about what I do as you are about your vocation.

To me, there’s the hard part: Finding a way to be passionate about whatever it is that you find yourself doing.

54 Bill G. August 5, 2011 at 10:26 pm

I have always felt that one of the great short-comings of the education system is it’s lack of life/career planning/guidance. I’m 42,during my grade school years we were told to get good grades so that we would do well in high school. In HS, we were told to get good grades so that we could get into a good college. In college, we were told to get good grades so that we could get a good job. During all that time no one ever really explored WHAT we wanted to become just HOW to get there. In grade school we were given ONE “aptitude test” in 8th grade which gave you a broad idea of careers you might like. In high school, I remember our guidance counselors stepping into class and saying, “Anyone who hasn’t spoken with their guidance counselor yet and plans to go to college should come see us.” – that was in January of my senior year! My father had left when I was 9 – I saw him at graduation. His advice – go into the military or become a plumber. Gee, thanks. I told my counselor that I liked to computers and I liked to fix things and wanted to be trained to repair electronics. He said with my grades he could get me into a good engineering school – I lasted 7 months and dropped out. My mom always took a “don’t pressure people – let them find their own way” approach. So when I said I wanted to go back to school to work with animals she just said, “…as long as you’re happy”. Which is very nice but a degree in biology without plans for further education doesn’t lead to much. So here I am at 42 – going back to school with kids half my age learning a new profession – nursing. I’m looking forward to it but I just wish someone way back when would have sat me down and really helped me do a little “soul-searching” perhaps then I wouldn’t feel like I spent an awfully long time “wandering” through life. I know that ultimately I am responsible for MY life – I’m just saying that guidance is so important and often so overlooked.

55 Mister Peepers August 7, 2011 at 4:19 am

My girlfriend gave me the best vocation advice I have ever received.

She told me to think of the absolute coolest thing ever that I’d like to do.
Didn’t matter if I thought I could do it or not, just pick it anyway.

Somewhere out there is a person, school, or company that also thinks it’s
the coolest, and they are dying to teach and share with others.

It worked.

56 Dustin August 17, 2011 at 4:31 pm

Finding a problem and then dedicating yourself to it only works if the problem is inherently tied to your passions. I read through David Brooks’ column and disagree with his assessment that the way to find a vocation is to de-emphasize the inner journey and look outward for problems that need solving. I work with college students between the ages of 18-24 every day and their capacity to “discover self” is abundant if pointed in the right direction. Moreover, once they discover their passions and strengths they typically not only solve meaningful problems but they also become leaders in their respective industries as a result of this self-knowledge and commitment to their passions. There is absolutely a necessity to look inward to discover 1) what you care about and 2) what you do well, and then to use that knowledge as a lens through which you can examine problems to which you can contribute positive change.

You may not have started AOM because of an inherent drive to start manly blogs, but it’s success is directly tied to your talents as a writer, organizer, and researcher and your passion about restoring the “classic” man. Thus, I think the formula for finding a vocation looks more like this:

what I value + what I do well + a problem that needs solving = successful vocation

There are obviously a few other ingredients, like grit and resilience, but the foundation starts with self-knowledge.

-Dustin

57 Jess October 23, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Your introduction describes exactly how I feel about women’s magazines, and the reason I read your blog. Every women’s magazine seems to be filled with how to do your hair and make-up and various ways to please your man. As a scientist and a women with interests outside of beauty, I think a blog or magazine that cover more interesting topics would be great. Maybe I shoud make that my side hustle for a few years and see what happens.

Thanks.

58 daniel molitor October 29, 2012 at 10:45 am

Following your passion is not the same as following a career path. That is what many of those commencement speakers are talking about. Employment is good, and necessary, and should be high on the list of anyone seeking success. Obviously. But employment and passion are not always the same, nor do they have to be. All too often we assume that our work, what puts food on the table (and a table beneath the food), must satisfy both our need for income and our passions. This leads to frustration and regret. While it’s fantastic if some people find a job or a career that satisfies both, most people don’t, and that’s why you shouldn’t confuse the two. College is too often assumed to be nothing more than job training. It can be so much more. Take advantage of it while you can and use it as a starting point for ALL of life’s journeys.

59 peter December 1, 2012 at 6:35 am

Thanks AOM, and commentators for some wonderful insights. I’m 26 and have a splitting soulache over this mega-substantive “vocation.” I’m actually on my way to therapy to help me get over this polemic philosophical wall.

Thanks to the many comments I realize how common this problem is. That takes off some of the pressure. I think that the biggest underlying problem which is alluded to but not directly denoted, is the conflict between fulfillment and necessity. Like another person said…food on the table. That’s necessity. What about happiness? My older brother who I look to as an example picked boring degree and profession (software and systems) for stability over happiness. That dream job of his as a scuba diving guide/instructor went somewhere else. Now he makes a living, but will never leave lower middle class. Let’s be realistic people, most professions will leave you in the “lower middle class.” Meaning….less than 100k a year. Happiness? If you like what you do….then like many have said…you can survive on a pittance. BUT, if you hate it AND don’t make good money, you won’t be able to afford the wonderful vacations, massages, and toys needed to happily unload work related stress! I’m going to struggle a little more over what to do with myself…but this page and comments have genuinely helped. You all have highlighted the important questions, and stimulated the right thought patterns. Peace n Love

60 Paulo February 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm

thank you for the amazing useful content!

61 jerry February 23, 2013 at 4:08 pm

First find a serious hobby and build around that.

62 Steven June 27, 2013 at 10:46 am

For those of you who have no idea what you want to do and don’t want to blow a bunch of money on college you could always do what I did.

Work a full time job and go to a local community college part time pursuing a 2 year associates degree, or a technical degree. If your lucky you can get an easy desk job where you can work on your homework in the downtime.

You have to go for 6 credits each trimester, spring, summer and fall. This qualifies you for the hope credit, 2000$ back on your taxes for 2 years. You have to have 2000$ taken from your taxes to get that 2000 back.

63 Janice Schick July 23, 2013 at 12:01 pm

I found this site when I was searching for a link on how to sew on a button properly. I was doing a presentation for a class and I thought sewing on a button would be good because, to my surprise, few people know how to do it. The instruction on this site were the best and ever since then I’ve read your articles regularly. Once again, with this article, you have not disappointed. Thanks!

64 Ryan July 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Aristotle wrapped this notion up nicely when he said, “where your own talents and the needs of the world intersect, there lies your vocation”.

65 Stevie July 25, 2013 at 9:21 am

I’m actually a female who is an instant fan of this blog. I grew up without the best of Father figures and my Husband also has had many challenges in that department as well…leaving us both with a sense of utter confusion and conflict about what it is to be “a man”. Long story short after 3 years together, two years of marriage we’ve struggled A LOT due to my higher expectations and his perceived inability, now realized, is his lack of instruction and guidance and I now feel a greater compassion and understanding of why we are where we are. I also see that just because it appears to be a “selfish, uncaring, self-involved” situation or relationship doesn’t mean that is what’s intended. Most of us “do what we know” and if you’ve never had a strong, loving, consistent and involved “father/husband/man figure” how WOULD you know what to do and how act etc.

I’m humbled to know that many men are indeed searching and in fact do desire and think about wanting to be better, happier and improve themselves and their relationships as well. I also see now how jaded I’ve become and that I can’t project the past upon the future.

My Husband has been struggling with these things and this is something I think will be so beneficial to him, myself and our Daughter. It not only forces me to question my views/perceptions, but it also shows me how much I have left to learn, how to better support, encourage and challenge my partner but also provides me with invaluable advice and information if we ever have a son of our own.

I can’t thank you enough for this, yes, life changing perspective and thought provoking information.

I will be reading and sharing your blog with every male AND female I know :)

66 Eric August 4, 2013 at 7:53 pm

Couldn’t have come at a better time! :’)
I know just the problem. XD

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