Calling and Occupation

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On June 19,
I gave a lecture to a group of students who were studying how to
get jobs. These students live in the inner city of Memphis. It is
one of the poorest communities in the United States. Most of them
had no experience in getting a job. Yet most of them were at least
20 years old. Several of them were over 40 years old.

There were
17 students in the room. Only one of them was male.

My goal for
the lecture was to introduce them to the concept of the calling.
This is different from the concept of the job or occupation. I wanted
to make certain that they understood that their occupation is subordinate
to their calling. This is not widely recognized.

Whenever it
is not recognized, people have a tendency to overestimate the importance
of their occupation. They become motivated primarily by money, prestige,
or fame. They become sidetracked from the important issues of their

On the other
hand, some people are not highly motivated by anything connected
to their job. The modern State welfare system enables them to gain
a minimal living without working. For these people, a job may seem
superfluous. So, when the going gets tough on the job, these people
tend to resign. They quit. They go back onto the welfare system.
They do not learn the basic skills associated with the job.

The longer
they stay out of the labor market, the more likely they will not
be able to get permanent employment.

The privately
funded organization that invited me to give the lecture is dedicated
to bringing to inner-city residents the basic skills of getting
a job and managing a personal budget. One of the programs sponsored
by this organization is a three-week class that trains people how
to get their first job. The organization actually pays people to
attend this three-week course. It raises money from donors who want
to help people escape the welfare system. Sometimes, people enroll
in the course, and then quit after a few days. Even though they
are being paid to attend, they lose interest.

All of the
people in the class were Afro Americans. Because only one of them
was a male, I decided from the beginning that my goal was to explain
the difference between calling and occupation in terms that would
be familiar to black women. I wanted to motivate most of the people
who were in that room. Here is what I told them.

What I’m about
to tell you is not commonly known. It has been very important in
my life, both professionally and financially.

I was trained
to be a college professor. My field was history. Today, I’m in business.
There is a lot more money in business than there is in teaching
in a college. Nevertheless, the important work in my life is still
my academic work, and much of it is connected to history.

My calling
in life has not changed, but my occupation has changed. What is
most important in my career has not changed, but the way that I
make my money has changed.

I define "calling"
as follows: the most important thing that you can do in which you
would be most difficult to replace. I define "occupation"
as the way you put bread on the table. Sometimes these can be the
same, but not very often. The most important thing is your calling.
Your occupation should support your calling.

A hundred years
ago, there was no confusion about calling and occupation for most
women. The calling for most women was related to their families.
So was their occupation. They were wives and mothers. They did not
work outside the household for money. They were not paid a wage.
In such a case, the calling is the same as the occupation.

But in American
life, there were exceptions to this rule. Afro-American women often
served as domestics. Sometimes they took in washing. They earned
money outside the household in order to help finance the household.
This began shortly after the end of the Civil War.

If you asked
one of those women what her most important task was, she would have
defined that task in terms of her family. She would not have defined
herself as a washerwoman. She would not have defined her life in
terms of domestic service. If you explained what a calling is, she
would have understood that her family responsibilities were her

There has always
been a tendency for men to define themselves in terms of their occupations.
Yet men change their occupations. When they are husbands and fathers,
they’re not supposed to make changes. Like women, their callings
are related to their families. But they don’t always understand

In my case,
my calling is my academic work. The most important thing that I
can do in which I would be most difficult to replace is related
to my academic career. Yet I don’t earn my living by my academic
career. I earn my living by selling information in the area of business
and finance. I do my calling free of charge. My occupation supports
my calling.

When people
understand the distinction between occupation and calling, they
are far less likely to make serious mistakes in the allocation of
their time. They won’t confuse money with the most important thing
that they can do in life. But not all people understand this. I
hope you do.


I want you
to understand that there is no such thing as a dead-end job. Every
job can be a stepping stone to a better job. The limitation is not
the job. The limitation is the person who has the job. When you
get your job, think of it as a stepping stone to the rest of your
career. Think of your career as your calling.

To understand
this distinction, let’s consider the career of a pair of billionaires.

Bill Cosby
has always understood that his calling is his family. His humor
was always tied to family living. He began his career by telling
stories about growing up in South Philadelphia. They were very funny
stories. They were not particularly racial. His humor was therefore
universal. Later, he wrote a book called Fatherhood.

In terms of
his career, his great gift was his humor. Unlike most people, he
found that he could earn a great deal of money with his gift. But
this took many years. He was fortunate, because when he began his
career, there was a market for comedy records. He gained a national
audience by means of these records.

Then he got
the opportunity of a lifetime. In the mid-1960s, he was made co-star
of a popular television show called "I Spy." He won an
Emmy three times for the show. After that show was cancelled, he
kept working. Then, in the 1980s, "The Cosby Show" became
the most popular show on television for eight years. The money rolled
in. As a result of that show, he became a multi-multimillionaire.
Some estimates put his total wealth at a billion dollars.

Cosby’s career
was based on his humor. The most important thing that Cosby could
do, outside of his family, was to entertain people. He never forgot
this. He always maintained high standards. Step by step, the money
he made from his occupation increased. His occupation supported
his calling: making millions of people’s lives more enjoyable.

Now consider
Oprah Winfrey. She is said to be worth $1 billion. She entertains
millions of women, but she also uplifts them. Hers is a self-help
show, not a scandal-of-the day show. She offers people hope. Her
sponsors see her as a way to make money, but her calling is not
making money. She has no immediate family, so her calling is her

Now she faces
a big problem. So does Cosby. When you have this much money, you
have enormous responsibility. You are going to die. That money is
going to go somewhere. Someone is going to put that money to use.
What use will that money be put to?

Bill Cosby
is in a better position to solve this problem than Oprah is. His
career as an entertainer is probably close to the end. His more
recent television shows have not made much money. So, he can devote
time to giving away his money, which he does. He has so much money
that he can’t give all of it away without wasting it. Giving away
that much money is a full-time calling — not a job, a calling.

Oprah, on the
other hand, still has to devote most of her time to her television
work. She makes far more money than she can possibly give away.
So, what is her calling? Is it entertaining women? Is that the most
important thing that she can do in which she would be the most difficult
to replace? Or is giving away her money the most important thing
she can do? Most people never face this problem — not on this scale,
anyway. A few people do.

Bill Cosby
and Oprah Winfrey worked very hard for years before they got rich.
They paid attention to their occupations. They put time into mastering
their jobs. They got better and better at it. Then opportunities
opened up for each of them. They were in a position to take advantage
of those opportunities.


In the 1970s,
Daniel "Chappie"
James became a four-star general in the Air Force
. He was an
Afro-American. I once saw a film of a speech that he gave. He said
that his mother had always taught him to keep knocking on the door
of opportunity. But she told him that when you knock on the door
of opportunity, you had better have your bags packed. You had better
be able to take advantage of that opportunity as soon as the door
gets opened. You have to do your homework first.

When you get
your job, do everything you can to improve your skills. Master the
details of that job. Don’t think that it’s a dead-end job. It isn’t
a dead-end job. It’s a stepping stone. Prepare yourself to take
each new step. This is the way he become successful in your career.

Once you prove
to your boss that you can take on more responsibility, and you can
improve your performance, he will be ready to promote you. For every
dollar he pays you, he probably makes two dollars. He would rather
pay you $50 and make $25 than pay you $10 and make $5. He has no
financial incentive to keep you in a low-paying position when you’re
capable of moving to a higher-paid position. Never forget this.
He has every economic incentive to make you more successful if you
can make him more successful.

It is possible
that he does not have any way to pay you more in his business. It
may be a very small business. If you can figure out a way where
you can make him more money, tell him. He may not have seen this
opportunity. But if it’s clear that he has no way to promote you
to a better-paying position, then it’s time to look for a new job.
As your skills increase, your opportunities will increase.

Your first
job may seem like a dead-end job. Remember: There are no dead-end
jobs. There are only stepping stones. It is important that you stick
with your first job for at least a year. You have got to prove to
your boss that you are capable of taking greater responsibility.
The way to a successful career is through increased responsibility.
You have to prove that you’re competent at simple jobs before you’re
going to get an opportunity to prove yourself competent at more
complex jobs.

As you move
up the ladder of responsibility, never forget your goal. Your goal
is not simply to make more money. Your goal is to exercise your
calling. Your goal is to do the most important thing in which you
would be most difficult to replace. The greater your skill, the
more difficult you will be to replace.

There is no
guarantee that you will make more money just because you become
better at your calling. But in most cases, you will make more money.
Or, if you don’t make more money, you will achieve greater influence.
I can’t prove this, but I have seen it in my own life, and I have
seen it in the lives of many other people.

This is why
it is so important to get that first job and keep it. The first
job is the stepping stone to success in your whole life. If you
are able to get that first job and keep it, your career will open
up. You’ll be able to use your occupation to extend your calling.

These are basic
principles that are not taught in our schools or our churches. I
don’t think they are widely understood.

If they were
better understood, we would have stronger families and greater wealth.
The great irony is that the pursuit of money is self-defeating.
When money, a tool of our callings, is defined as the supreme goal
of our efforts, we mistake a means for an end. This is what Jesus
called Mammon. It is the great rival religion in history.

There is so
much that a person can accomplish in this life, if he puts his mind,
his heart, and his back to it. But it is so easy to get sidetracked.
Like the student who initially pursues grades as a way to climb
the academic ladder, but then substitutes grades for knowledge,
or term papers for productivity, so is the person who pursues money
at the expense of his calling. He confuses a success indicator in
serving the public’s economic demand with success in extending his
vision of how things ought to be. He gets seduced.

For people
in the inner city, they have already been seduced by the welfare
State. For them, getting a job is the stepping stone out of dependence
on the government, which keeps them impoverished. Yet they need
motivation beyond just getting off the dole. They need to understand
their callings as much as anyone else does. They need to be motivated
by something more than money.

The tragedy
of the inner city is seen in the make-up of that classroom: sixteen
women and one man.

you want a hard-nosed analysis of just how bad it is in the inner
city, read about Bill
Cosby’s "Call Outs."
He is lecturing to black audiences
around the country, telling women that they are now the backbone
of the inner-city communities. He is catching a lot of flak from
the Establishment. But it’s hard to argue against what he has to

22, 2006

North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible

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