Calling vs. Occupation: Get This Distinction Straight.

Gary North

On June 19, 2006 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 lives.

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 basics 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 African-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.

* * * * * * *

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 calling.

There has always been a tendency for men to define themselves in terms of their occupations. Yet man 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 this.

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 career.

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 a way 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 seen 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 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 if that classroom: sixteen women and one man.

If 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 say.


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