John Dewey on How to Find Your Calling, the Key to a Fulfilling Vocation, and Why Diverse Interests Are Essential for Excellence in Any Field
By Maria Popova
“Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney,” young Vincent van Gogh despaired in a letter to his brother as he floundered for a calling. The question of how to find our purpose in life and make a living of what we love is indeed a perennial one, the record of its proposed answers stretching at least as far back as Plato, who believed that it was the role of education to uncover each person’s talent, train its mastery, and apply it toward the flourishing of society. More than two millennia later, philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) — one of the finest minds our civilization has produced, whose insights on how we think and the real role of education continue to refine the human spirit — addressed this abiding question of purpose in his 1916 masterwork Democracy and Education (public library).
Perched in time between Nietzsche’s gripping 1873 meditation on how to find yourself and Parker Palmer’s contemporary manifesto for how to let your soul speak, Dewey examines the question of how we find our purpose and what makes for a deeply fulfilling occupation. He defines calling as “a continuous activity having a purpose” and argues that such activity applies our natural gifts in a way that both fills us with a sense of aliveness and enriches the lives of our fellow human beings:
A vocation means nothing but such a direction of life activities as renders them perceptibly significant to a person, because of the consequences they accomplish, and also useful to his associates. The opposite of a career is neither leisure nor culture, but aimlessness, capriciousness, the absence of cumulative achievement in experience, on the personal side, and idle display, parasitic dependence upon the others, on the social side. Occupation is a concrete term for continuity. It includes the development of artistic capacity of any kind, of special scientific ability, of effective citizenship, as well as professional and business occupations, to say nothing of mechanical labor or engagement in gainful pursuits.
But Dewey admonishes against our tendency to define ourselves by what we are best at, which invariably routinizes our work and confines our character:
We must avoid … the notion that vocations are distributed in an exclusive way, one and only one to each person… Each individual has of necessity a variety of callings, in each of which he should be intelligently effective… Any one occupation loses its meaning and becomes a routine keeping busy at something in the degree in which it is isolated from other interests.
In a sentiment of supreme timeliness amid today’s culture, which continually reduces our expansive wholeness to limiting fragments as we’re forced to define ourselves in three words on a conference badge and 160 characters in a Twitter bio, Dewey writes:
No one is just an artist and nothing else, and in so far as one approximates that condition, he is so much the less developed human being; he is a kind of monstrosity. He must, at some period of his life, be a member of a family; he must have friends and companions; he must either support himself or be supported by others, and thus he has a business career. He is a member of some organized political unit, and so on. We naturally name his vocation from that one of the callings which distinguishes him, rather than from those which he has in common with all others. But we should not allow ourselves to be so subject to words as to ignore and virtually deny his other callings…
As a man’s vocation as artist is but the emphatically specialized phase of his diverse and variegated vocational activities, so his efficiency in it, in the humane sense of efficiency, is determined by its association with other callings.
Rather than narrowing our focus, Dewey argues, a true calling widens our lens and becomes a pattern-recognition device by which we organize and connect ideas from diverse fields — the very mechanism of creativity. He writes:
A calling is also of necessity an organizing principle for information and ideas; for knowledge and intellectual growth. It provides an axis which runs through an immense diversity of detail; it causes different experiences, facts, items of information to fall into order with one another. The lawyer, the physician, the laboratory investigator in some branch of chemistry, the parent, the citizen interested in his own locality, has a constant working stimulus to note and relate whatever has to do with his concern. He unconsciously, from the motivation of his occupation, reaches out for all relevant information, and holds to it. The vocation acts as both magnet to attract and as glue to hold. Such organization of knowledge is vital, because it has reference to needs; it is so expressed and readjusted in action that it never becomes stagnant.
Nearly a century before Werner Herzog extolled experience over technique in his no-nonsense advice to aspiring filmmakers, Dewey urges for an immersion in life as the best method of improving one’s art:
A person must have experience, he must live, if his artistry is to be more than a technical accomplishment. He cannot find the subject matter of his artistic activity within his art; this must be an expression of what he suffers and enjoys in other relationships — a thing which depends in turn upon the alertness and sympathy of his interests.
The only adequate training for occupations is training through occupations… The only sufficient preparation for later responsibilities comes by making the most of immediately present life… The dominant vocation of all human beings at all times is living — intellectual and moral growth.
Half a century before Buckminster Fuller denounced specialization in his spirited manifesto for the genius of generalists, Dewey admonishes against letting ourselves be defined by our primary skill:
What is true of an artist is true of any other special calling. There is doubtless — in general accord with the principle of habit — a tendency for every distinctive vocation to become too dominant, too exclusive and absorbing in its specialized aspect. This means emphasis upon skill or technical method at the expense of meaning. Hence it is not the business of education to foster this tendency, but rather to safeguard against it, so that the scientific inquirer shall not be merely the scientist, the teacher merely the pedagogue, the clergyman merely one who wears the cloth, and so on.
Dewey considers the ultimate rewards of finding one’s calling, both for the individual and for his or her community:
An occupation is the only thing which balances the distinctive capacity of an individual with his social service. To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness. Nothing is more tragic than failure to discover one’s true business in life, or to find that one has drifted or been forced by circumstance into an uncongenial calling. A right occupation means simply that the aptitudes of a person are in adequate play, working with the minimum of friction and the maximum of satisfaction. With reference to other members of a community, this adequacy of action signifies, of course, that they are getting the best service the person can render.
Complement the acutely timely Democracy and Education, which remains one of the most important and timelessly rewarding books ever written, with Dewey on how to master the art of reflection in an age of information overload and our individual role in peace, then revisit William James on choosing purpose over profit and Parker Palmer on inhabiting your hidden wholeness.
Published October 20, 2015