Your Job or Your Calling: Which Comes First in Your Life?

Gary North

Maybe you have read about a minister who was preaching about how he was ready to die when his work was over. Then he fell backward and died.

He had suffered a heart attack. Although there were physicians in the congregation, they couldn’t do anything to help him. He was dead long before the paramedics arrived.

The Associated Press picked up the story. So did Yahoo. CNN reported it. You can still find the story on the Web. Search for “minister,” “Jack Arnold” and “dies.”

Paul Harvey reported that “Pastor Jack Arnold’s last words were, ‘And when I get to heaven,’ . . . and he went!”

A spokesman for the church said it is not uncommon for people to die on the job. Quite true, but usually they don’t die immediately after making comments about being ready to die, unless they are on the local PD’s bomb squad.

His son reported this on his blogsite:

Jack Arnold, 69, was preaching in Orlando, Fla., on his life verse: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He quoted John Wesley and pointed upward: “As long as God has work for me to do, I am immortal, but if my work is done, I’m outa here.”Moments later he spoke his last sentence about heaven, stopped, grabbed the pulpit, swayed briefly and fell backward. Medics say the heart attack killed him immediately.

“He was just all there, and then not there at all, like a hand came through the roof and snatched him out of his body,” said Chris Williams who told me he was sitting in the front row only five feet from where Dad fell. Arnold had not been famous in the way that his seminary classmate Hal Lindsey is famous. Hal Lindsey is a celebrity. Rev. Arnold never was.

He had been one of John Wooden’s players at UCLA. Coach Wooden sent this message to the church:

The circumstances of Jack’s passing was consistent with how he played the game of basketball as a member of the UCLA team. He always gave everything he had right down to the very last second. He was not blessed with as much physical ability as others, but no one worked harder or was more highly respected than Jack.

He was not a starter, and he was there early in Wooden’s UCLA career, before Wooden became legendary as the coach whose teams won ten NCAA championships. But only 172 men played for Wooden, so it was some kind of honor.

Jack Arnold made a difference in my life.

I first met him in 1960. He was instrumental in shaping my own thinking — one of the dozen people who most influenced me most, although I saw him only a few times. He was a youth minister, as I recall. I did not attend his church, but someone I knew at UCLA had told me I should talk with him. That was good advice.

Before I met him, I had never heard the phrase, “Don’t let the good interfere with the best.” This possibility had not occurred to me. But the more I thought about it, the more profound it seemed.

There are many good things that we can do. Each of us possesses many talents. We possess many opportunities to be productive.


As I studied economics, I began to appreciate Adam Smith’s story of the pin-makers. Through specialization and through capital equipment (tools), they are vastly more productive than a specialist in pin production who makes one pin at a time, step by precise step. He cannot compete by price. He loses his job.

We tend to see this as a disaster for the solitary pin-maker. Those other people, with minimal skills, have destroyed his career. Hooray for them, we think. Tough bananas for him.

This is the wrong way to look at the development. Human labor is highly flexible. Unlike machines, we humans can learn lots of ways to be productive. When we are freed up from one task, we can learn a new skill. That’s what it means to get a promotion.

Smith warned that the life of a pin-maker in a factory is boring and even demeaning. Who wants to go through the same repetitive motions all day? Over time, machines replace this kind of labor. That is good news for those freed up to do more creative things.

We all fear losing our jobs. But when we are displaced because a machine or low-skilled person does what we do, but cheaper, we should see this as a liberation. I don’t want to be known as a man who spent his life doing what a machine could do far better. Do you?

The man who lost his career to lower paid pin-makers with machines was liberated. He could devote the remainder of his life to work that offers greater opportunities for displaying his God-given talents and vision. But nobody ever thinks about what happened in 1776 to the newly unemployed pin-maker.

Occasionally, I have met people who have lost their careers. I can think of only one who was truly bitter. Over 20 years ago, I was picked up at the airport by a man driving a hotel van. He griped all the way to the hotel about Ronald Reagan. He had been a well-paid worker as a flight controller. When PATCO struck, illegally, against the U.S. government to gain better working conditions, Reagan stood his ground, refused to negotiate, told them to go back to work, and warned them that if they refused, they would be replaced. Most of them refused. Every one of these hold-outs lost his job. They were immediately replaced without incident by people who were happy to work for the original wages. PATCO ceased to exist. So, this new minimum-wage worker, driving that hotel van, got no sympathy from me. He had suffered a self-inflicted wound. He also got no tip from me. The only tip I should have given him was: “Get over it.”

I have suffered such a career loss. It was painful at the time, but it liberated me. I can remember when it happened. I had experienced what the departing University of California Chancellor Clark Kerr had described a few years earlier. “I am leaving this job just as I entered it: fired with enthusiasm.” I was lamenting my plight to a woman who was probably younger then than I am now. She said it had happened to her husband. She offered this advice: “It happens at least once to everyone with any talent. Regard it as a learning experience.” So it was.

Within a few months, I was in Washington as a research assistant to Congressman Ron Paul. Then it happened again: he lost the election a few months later by 168 votes out of 180,000. I was back on the street again. But within weeks, I went to work for Howard Ruff. And all through the period, I had income from my newsletter, REMNANT REVIEW.

That is another lesson. I had a fall-back business. I preferred not to touch that income. I used the money for advertising to build up my paid subscriber base. I kept getting better at this as I taught myself the basics of direct-response advertising.

Note: the best piece of advice I did not take at the time was from advertising genius — I did not perceive this at the time — Dan Rosenthal, who told me in 1973 to read Rosser Reeves’s “Reality in Advertising.” I did . . . 20 years later.

In the month before I lost my government paycheck, I began scheduling full-page magazine ads for a book I had assembled from old copies of REMNANT REVIEW. Within two years, I had sold (as I recall), over 20,000 copies at $10 each ($25 in today’s money). I also convinced 2,000 of these book buyers to subscribe to REMNANT REVIEW for $60 a year. I never looked back. Three years after I lost my government job, I had 22,000 paid subscribers.

My point is simple: adversity is the mother of creativity. When we face brick walls, we find ways under, over, or around them. Or we go into the brick wall business and sell them.

I have known U.S. Marines in my life. None of them ever told me that he would like to go through boot camp again. All of them told me they were glad they did it once.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that he was glad for his years in the prison camps. The experience had stripped him of everything he owned. He learned how to be a man in a society that produced broken men outside the camps. In a way, this was a variation of Kris Kristofferson’s line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Solzhenitsyn became Russia’s most eloquent anti-Communist. He did more to undermine Western intellectuals’ respect for Communism than anyone else prior to the fall of the USSR in 1991.

Of course, he survived the camps. Tens of millions didn’t. But persecution is an old feature of tyrannical governments. There have been many victims of State coercion. The question is: What does the victim do with his opportunity? All of life is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to do better, to serve better, and to make a difference.

What seemed like a bad thing can be a good thing. This raises another question.


This brings me back to Jack Arnold’s observation. How can the good interfere with the best? Answer: By blinding prodding the do-gooder to best-doing.

When we are doing well by doing good we are tempted to rest on our laurels. We continue to do the same old thing. It’s comfortable. We like the comfort of the familiar when the money is rolling in. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

Yet things around us are broken. There may be money in fixing them. There may not be. But lots of things are broken. They need fixing.

In 1981, I was talking to a man about the concept of the calling. As I was talking, something became clear to me for the first time. A job is not usually a calling.

The two categories had been confused for centuries. Even Max Weber (“Mawx Vayber”) had gotten them confused in his influential book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Like a flash, it hit me. We put food on the table with our jobs. We gain significance from our callings. I came up with this definition:

Calling. Noun. The most important thing you can do in which you would be most difficult to replace.

When a man hits age 45, he begins to think about his calling. If he is successful in his job, he has achieved success. But success loses its allure. It grows familiar. It’s the same old stuff, day after day. It makes the world a little better, day by day, but it adds nothing new. He is mostly in replacement mode. “Now what should I do with my life?”

There are exceptions. Someone in medical research who is working to invent a cure for a dreaded disease probably has the sense that he is being paid to exercise his calling. He may achieve significance, or he may not, but significance in this case is a matter of invention, which cannot be programmed. (Well, maybe it can. Thomas Edison’s research organization produced over 1,000 patents. But there has never been another Edison.) He sticks to his knitting. He may not achieve significance by sticking to his knitting, but he surely will not achieve significance if he doesn’t.

For men, significance is rarely salaried. It’s a trade-off: security vs. significance. For those few who rise in the ranks, the trade-off becomes success vs. significance.

Men are employed in jobs that have specific requirements. Others can replace most of them within hours, if necessary. Some man working in a cubicle can be gone the next day: heart attack, firing, or running off with the next door neighbor. The corporation barely burps. “Replaceable him.”

As a father of pre-adult children, the missing man leaves havoc behind. Yet he did not earn a living as a father. He earned a living to support himself as a father.

His job was his occupation. His fatherhood was his calling, at least for a time.

There are lots of men who let the good — job — interfere with the best: fatherhood. This is a widespread lament by many Western men when the kids are gone . . . and maybe their wives, too.


We trade money against time. We can see this in the allocation of scarce resources. There are two ways to do this: by price or by rationing. The two boil down to these rules: “High bid wins” vs. “stand in line.” “Stand in line” is a variation of “first come, first served.” It is the difference between Federal Express and the Post Office.

If you had been flying over East Germany and West Germany in 1988 — and not been shot down — you would have known which country you were flying over by two things: cars on the highway below and the length of lines in front of buildings. West Germany had the cars; East Germany had the lines.

When you are long on time and short of money, you perceive the trade-off differently. Ben Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack, made this observation: “A child thinks that 20 pounds and 20 years can never be spent.” An adult knows better.

By age 45, a man looks at his job and thinks, “Been there. Done that.” The marginal value of the next dollar begins to fall in relationship to the marginal value of the next minute. If it doesn’t, he may become the next Warren Buffett. Or maybe the next Bernie Ebbers.

The sand running through the hourglass — an archaic image that Bill Gates creatively adopted for digital delays — reminds us of the trade-off.

At some point, the trade-off usually ceases. The money is rolling in, but at some point won’t be. For most people, their money runs out before the sand does, which is what the debate over Social Security is all about. The occupation dies before the job-holder does.

What was a trade-off at age 20, 45, and 64 ceases upon retirement for most men. Money then runs out alongside of time. They both seem to run out faster and faster. It then becomes difficult to finance your own significance.

The trade-off between security and significance ceases to be a trade-off. Security departs, and significance never arrived.

This is why money, while good, is a threat to the best. When money is on short supply — at the beginning and at the end — it makes heavy demands on us. It becomes a siren song. It threatens to addict us. This is what Jesus meant by “mammon.” It means “more for me in history.” It is a false god. It is also a demanding god.

Significance must be funded — always by time, usually by money, too. Time is money. To spend time on non-profit A, you must forfeit the income that project B might have generated.

There is no escape from this. The sooner a person grasps this fact, the more significance he is likely to have.

Significance must be funded, steadily. Funding — usually by time — must become habitual. This leaves less income for other things.

Men groan about the cost of significance in forfeited money. “I’m just barely making ends meet as it is!” Then they spend three hours a night watching TV. They are trading money for leisure. They are also trading significance for leisure. Money isn’t flowing in, but neither is significance. Time is flowing out.

“Free television.” I would sooner believe “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”


I think of Jack Arnold in the pulpit. What he achieved in death, he never achieved in life, either on the basketball court or in the pulpit. The timing of his parting words, which was not his timing, was flawless.

I also think of the last words of Pete Maravich, surely the most spectacular white ball handler and shooter in basketball history. He was the supreme collegiate ball handler/scorer. He was playing a pickup basketball game at age 40. Radio family counselor James Dobson was on the court, and he heard Maravich’s parting sentence: “I feel great.” One minute later, he was dead. Maravich had already admitted to Dobson that he had spent too much of his life playing basketball. He had been famous. His scoring record in college ball still stands. Yet he knew that he had not allocated his time wisely. What had appeared to be significance had really been a high-paying job. Celebrity status is not significant.

Leave service out of it, and you have misunderstood the basis of any success you have had or will have. Success starts with service. So does significance.

Choose your forms of service well.


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