April 30th, 2009

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Career vs. hobby vs. vocation

Stardancer News - The Missing Concept

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The Missing Concept

A few weeks ago, Forbes Magazine ran an article on the business secrets of the Trappist monks. I got through one-fourth of that article—okay, slightly less—before the absurdity drove me away. It was the section on Service and Selfishness where it became laughable. Here was someone trying to extrapolate business rules based on the activities of monks. It was obviously wrong-headed. Even when monks run businesses, they're not doing it for the same reasons businessmen do.

But I bookmarked the article, and I didn't know why... until this weekend, when I was forced to confront the whole "art should be a hobby" thing again. Then the article sprang back into mind, because it illuminated a missing concept from modern society.

We have hobbies still. And we have careers. But we no longer perceive vocations.

What a blind spot! We can recognize a leisure activity and we can recognize an activity done to pursue money... but we no longer talk much if at all about callings... about doing something because you feel you must, because it's a part of you, because you feel it is a spiritual duty.

No wonder there are so many miserable artists (in particular). If you are a successful artist, then you have a career, which means you must make money. If you don't have a career, then you are relegated to the status of a hobbyist, who does such things for leisure. So the only way you can be measured a fulfilled and successful artist in this age is to make money. And as everyone knows, measuring your self-worth by whether you're making money at something is a tiffy proposition, particularly in artistic pursuits where (rightly) everyone has their own opinion on what's good and what's worth buying.

(You see? The language has snuck into me also: 'worth buying', as if that's the only metric by which you can gauge the worth of something.)

The limp, non-spiritual definition of vocation is worthless (and in fact, came over a hundred years after its first, religious definition). What we need again is to respect the concept of a spiritual calling to an action... yes, even in secular circles. As long as there will be people, there will be people seeking spiritual fulfillment. You can't take that need out of human beings.

For a very long time, I tried to treat my art, my writing, all my talents as the focus of a career. I had a good path for it: there are commercial industries to support such a road. But the more I tried, the more miserable I became and the less money I made. Part of that was out of my control... but the parts that were under my control I flubbed also, because to treat your art as a career you have to make good business choices, whether or not they're good artistic choices. And I refused to make those sacrifices.

But when I started treating my art as a vocation—and much like the monks, seeking money only as a byproduct of that vocation, as a way to support myself and my own instead of draining their resources supporting me—I started making comfortable money. I became happier. I no longer had to compromise.

Is this a way to make a living? I don't know. But that's not my goal anymore. And that's how it had to be, because if the art is a calling putting any other goal before making the art will sour it.

(I know there will now be artists who have chosen the career path who will argue that they are not compromising themselves artistically: to them, I say: Good! For now, what the industry has selected to sell is what you want to make. I hope it remains that way for you indefinitely. But if it doesn't, you will return to the choice between art and commerce, and you can only have one master.)

So there you are. I have a vocation. And if that's how you feel about your work, then I encourage you to call it by its rightful name, and be free!

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