Total Work Newsletter #44: You Very Likely Don't Have A Calling

On Ikigai and Callings

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are being transformed into Workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1500 and possibly as the thirteenth century.


First, as you can see, I’ve switched over to Substack. One reason for this is that I think it will help me grow my readership more easily. If you have any new readers in mind, you can send them this link.

Second, thank you to my new Patreon patron, Jessica. If you’d like to support the philosophical life I lead, you can do so here. Or if, as the old saying went, the spirit moves you to offer a one-time donation, go here instead.

Third, I’ll probably be in touch soon about the progress of the book. It might help if I share with you some of my experiences about traditional book publishing, hybrid publishing, and self-publishing as well. It’s a Wild, Wild West these days.

Fourth, the essay below provides an assessment of the Protestant-cum-secular concept of the calling. What concerns me is that the calling has been a fetish.

Finally, about two weeks ago I began blogging almost daily again after about a seven year hiatus. Given the popularity of podcasts (owing, I might add, to the near-ubiquity of Total Work), I don’t think long form blogging or essay writing has much of a mainstream future (with notable, niche exceptions like Ribbonfarm). For this reason, I’m experimenting with a “flash fiction” format, you might say: each post is between 200-400 words and therefore can be read in 1-2 minutes. The intention, in this case, is to provoke, stir, shock, or awaken. If you’re curious, you can read old posts or subscribe to new ones here.

Labor, In My Specific Sense

New Yorker Instagram. Credit: Liana Finck

Early Decline, Schools Of Thought, And Ikigai

#1: MIDLIFE PIVOT | Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think | 20 min. | Atlantic | Essay HT Lisa Page

Thesis: Professional decline occurs before we would expect it to. The ever-present danger is to cling to professional successes, the author suggests; the trick is to see professional success as a specific period in your life. After that period, it is wise to explore religion, spirituality, service, and the like.

Reply: I find the general arc of Brook's essay to be good, yet I continue to doubt (a) whether professional success of the kind he describes isn't already shot through with some, if not many, of the trappings of Total Work and (b) whether many people will make the transition from the pursuit of worldly goods such as status, wealth, prestige, and success to the pursuit of transcendent goods. In the end, the essay feels like something The Atlantic would publish: provocative enough to cause a wee stirring but not so provocative that it will rock the boat.

#2: POLITICAL CORRECTNESS | The Treason Of The intellectuals And "The Undoing Of Thought" | 15 min. | The New Criterion | Essay/Book Review

Sum: A long form essay-meets-book review first written by Roger Kimball at the height of the first culture war. Kimball provides a defense of Enlightenment reason plus tradition while rejecting postmodern cultural relativism.

Relevance: There are some interesting discussions of the role of intellectuals. Time was, Kimball believes, when intellectuals really were concerned with investigating non-practical matters such as the nature of the cosmos, truth, and the like. Not so today. Pieper, in 1947, called academics "intellectual workers"--and he meant it!

A Day In The Life Of Total Work

Credit: Peter Limberg

#3: THE VIEW FROM ABOVE | The Nine Schools of Work: Historical & Modern Work Ethics | 10 min. | Think Boundless | Synthesis

My Sum: Paul Millerd argues that there are 9 schools, each of which has its take on what the purpose of work is. These range from some very modest views to the more extravagant ones with which we're, by now, familiar. My revised school would be: “Almost everything is work, and work, for us, is almost everywhere and everything.” Pithier still: “Almost everything is work, and work is almost everything.”

#4: BASIC ASSUMPTIONS | Chris Hayes on Twitter: "An economist once said to me: time is one resource they’re never making more of. We get one life, and it would be nice for everyone to spend more time with their loved ones and less time at work. We should figure out how to make that happen! Lots of other places already have."

Analysis: The weird thing is that the journalist, Chris Hayes, and I are supposed to be on the same side. After all, apparently we are both committed to the (very modest) proposal that work isn't as important as it's made out to be. Yet then he launches into some standard arguments that evidence not having really thought about what he's saying.

1.) "[T]ime is one resource they’re never making more of." Reply: It's not self-evident that time is a resource, let alone a scarce one. How did time come to moderns to seem as if (a) it was a resource and (b) that resource must must needs be scarce? With the result that one must (c) prudently 'use' time as best as one can, never ever "wasting" it.

2.) "We get [only] one life." Reply: This is a secular assumption. The assumption is question-begging. Why do keep assuming away this existential question when many traditions have argued for transmigration, rebirth, reincarnation, and an afterlife? It's faux-deep to say that we "only get one life." Recent doubts too about the Grand Theory of Darwinian evolution are cropping up; these don't suggest that Darwinian evolution can't explain slow, incremental changes in a given species but they do cast doubt on the theory's ability to explain the origin of new species. See, e.g., "Giving Up Darwin." Why have we assumed that the closed immanent frame is true?

3.) "[A]nd it would be nice for everyone to spend more time with their loved ones and less time at work." Reply: (a) "Spending time" is a work-saturated idiom. (b) Wow, this is such a bourgeois picture of the good life. Work and family... Work and family... Work and family... More work, less family; less work, more family. Say, why not paint, take psychedelics, wonder about the cosmos, contemplate some grasshoppers, meditate to discover the Source, etc.?

#5: PRE-ESTABLISHED HARMONY | Ikigai, The Great Unthought | 1-2 min. | Personal Blog | Polemic

Sum: In which on my person blog I argue that Ikigai (the popular chart, I mean) is (a) unrealistic and (b) unexamined. Worse, it's a (c) fairly trivial philosophy of life.

You Very Likely Don’t Have A Calling

Introducing the Calling

While doing research for some public talks on burnout, moral injury, and Total Work in the healthcare industry, I came upon one article that caught my eye. The authors argue:

Most physicians enter medicine following a calling rather than a career path. They go into the field with a desire to help people. Many approach it with almost religious zeal, enduring lost sleep, lost years of young adulthood, huge opportunity costs, family strain, financial instability, disregard for personal health, and a multitude of other challenges. Each hurdle offers a lesson in endurance in the service of one’s goal which, starting in the third year of medical school, is sharply focused on ensuring the best care for one’s patients. Failing to consistently meet patients’ needs has a profound impact on physician wellbeing—this is the crux of consequent moral injury.

The argument is that moral injury results from a system’s ongoing clash with one’s moral sense. While this may be “the crux of the consequent moral injury,” I believe it only tells half the story.

To see the other, interior half, we’ll need to investigate how our attachment to having a calling is making us miserable.

The Nature of the Calling

Let the calling be defined as whatever form of work

  • (1) utilizes one’s talents or gifts to the fullest such that one’s talents are uniquely suited for the specific form of work in question;

  • (2) is that to which one is deeply committed, perhaps or especially in the long haul;

  • (3) enables one, through one’s work, to satisfy some of the world’s needs;

  • (4) is sufficient for one to be able to maintain a livelihood.

(You can see how the calling, so understood, closely resembles ikigai.) I’m not entirely convinced that (4) is a necessary condition, but I think it could be. The rarest moral saints might have a calling, yet perhaps they cannot support themselves by doing so. That said, my sense is that most people today believe that P is a calling only if one can support oneself through P.

The Calling’s Appeal

People find the calling appealing for the following reasons:

  • They can rest assured based on the feeling that they are exactly where they need to be. They don’t have to worry or fret about being somewhere else or about doing something else with their lives.

  • They can have faith in a kind a perfection: the fit between them and their specific form of work is so seamless that it couldn’t possibly be contingent; it feels as if it really had to be this way, as if it were destined to be this way.

  • They can reject the self-interested nature of most careers without having regrets.

  • While rejecting careers, they can claim the moral high ground: they are not just doing this for themselves but also, and chiefly, for others.

  • Finally, they believe that their callings provide them with a sufficient reason for living. They might say: “Now this is why I’m here.”

All this sounds noble. Without question, wishing to have a right livelihood, wanting to use one’s gifts to the fullest extent possible, wanting to do well on behalf of other sentient beings, wishing to feel that one is where one needs to be: all this has a purity, even a wholesomeness, that cannot be gainsaid. Nor would I wish to.

In what follows, it’s not with noble intentions, however, that I’m concerned. It’s with the reality of the calling as it enters and insinuates itself into the modern world.

Some Arguments against the Calling

Here are but some arguments suggesting that the calling just won’t do for many of us moderns. Are there rare exceptions to the conclusions I reach below? Surely, there are. But why do you, dear reader, persist in believing that you are (or must be) one of those exceptions? Why can’t you just call what you do ‘good work’? Why the fetish of ‘the calling’?

Argument #1: Incoherence

  • The calling requires that there be a benevolent one—namely, God—who is doing the calling. On this Lutheran understanding, I am to be, and remain, open to God so that God can call me and so that I can follow the calling according to my open heart.

  • But in the secular world, most people do not believe in God. Therefore, there is no one doing the calling.

  • But then how can I be called to do form of work X if I have no belief that there is a divine caller summoning me to do X?

Argument #2: Subjectivism

  • Because most people don’t have a belief that there is a benevolent Being wanted me to be in my rightful place here on earth, those nonetheless clinging to the calling default to subjectivism.

  • That is, they say, “It feels as if I’m being called to do X. Or I feel called to do X.”

  • But this simply won’t do. There’s nothing wrong with feeling a strong intuition to do X, but on its own the intuition cannot supply you with a calling. For as implied in the definition proffered above, a calling is anchored in one’s relationship with the Other.

  • Hence, I alone cannot provide myself with a calling. (I have similar arguments against authenticity as way of replacing the objective dimension spelled out by the good life.)

Argument #3: Pre-established Harmony

  • There is no pre-established harmony of which I’m aware, and evidence based on observations corroborates this conclusion. “Pre-established harmony” is a loose reference to Leibniz’s metaphysics. Here, I simply mean that the cosmos (if such a reality still exists in modernity) and I are not perfectly well-suited for one another in some pre-arranged harmonious fashion.

  • This is to say that the cosmos is not ‘sitting around’ waiting for me to be born so that it can ‘assign me’ the kind of work uniquely well-suited for my disposition and competencies.

  • Since no pre-arranged fit exists, we should bite the bullet and accept that whatever kind of work I do will be as good as it gets without being absolutely perfect. Furthermore, we should accept the fact that if I’m doing X, I could have been doing Y. Sure, X, for me, may be better than Y, but there was no preordained reason why X is assuredly the best for me. This, if I’m being honest with myself, I can neither know nor expect.

Argument #4: Ubiquity

  • One of Luther’s major claims was that all Christians are called by God, no matter the work they do. A Christian accountant can be called to accountancy; a Christian priest to the church he serves; a Christian farmer to farming; and so on.

  • I’ve already suggested that you can’t be called without a Caller. In this case, my target is the proposal that, in the secular world, all of us will (or should) have callings.

  • But this is unreasonable and, as I argue below, can be harmful. It’s wildly far-fetched to believe that all human beings shall find a form of work that meets the requirements of the calling. This is delusional “Protestantism.”

  • Worse, it’s one of the aspirations of certain future of work thought leaders.

  • Individually and collectively, we need to face the fact that many people won’t have callings and that work can be modestly important without being oh so hifalutin.

Argument #5: The Case of Entrepreneurship

  • While I’m not a thoroughgoing apologist for all things entrepreneurial, I do think that it gives the lie to the calling.

  • Being an entrepreneur who makes something new entails that one isn’t finding something pre-existing.

  • Yet if one isn’t finding something pre-existing, then there’s nothing for one to “fit.”

  • But a calling requires that what’s unique about me fits perfectly the pre-existing role, the one that was ‘waiting’ for me.

  • So, entrepreneurs can’t have callings.

Argument #6: Institutional Misalignment

  • Now let’s get into the nitty gritty. Many modern institutions, I submit, are not conducive to human flourishing.

  • Because of this, human beings are often deformed by their interactions with these institutions.

  • One’s calling as a medical doctor or nurse, for example, can be exploited by the for-profit hospital at which one works.

  • This case illustrates that the calling’s assurance of fit can in no way be guaranteed. What is vital, instead, is a genuine philosophical investigation of one’s relationship with the institutions to which one belongs. We need, as it were, to sober up and get real.

Argument #7: Harmful Consequences

  • While having a calling does not, of necessity, entail that one does everything in one’s power to care for others at the expense of one’s own health and well-being, this is not infrequently how callings are understood.

  • Because of this, many people, in real life, who believe that they have callings are working themselves to the bone. They’re enduring great hardships; they’re “slogging” and “grinding” in the hope of bettering the lives of others. Or they’re “slogging” and “grinding” in order to get a startup off the ground.

  • It’s at this point that burnout and worse become lived realities.

  • Note that suicide rates in the medical profession are, according to WebMD, higher than those in other professions.

Argument #8: Myopia Concerning Christianity

  • Why not drop the over-demanding, uber-fetishizing, and ill-fitting calling while embracing (if we want to draw on the Christian tradition that has shaped modern culture) other Christian concepts?

  • You could try to do the kind of work where you “love thy neighbor as thyself.” What would that look like? (See the late Fred Rogers for a beautiful example of someone who loved his neighbor as himself.)

  • Or you could contemplate the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What would it mean to be kind to the person who is a stranger unto you in lieu of passing him or her or them by on the other side of the road?

  • Or you could think of the Christian concept of caritas, that is, charitable love. What would it mean to express charitable love through the work you do?

  • Lastly, in the pre-modern sense, you can think of what is involved in living a life of service.

  • You might reply that these too would be subject to the modern institutions that can be deformed. Quite right. But then you can ask yourself, “In, for example, a competitive business world which can seem like ‘dog eat dog,’ how could I, as best I can and surely imperfectly, love my neighbor as myself”? To ask this question is to engage in difficult ethical negotiations flowing from a consideration of what is genuinely possible in the situation at hand. You go in with your eyes wide open—and keep them open throughout.

The Chief Point

The chief point of the arguments above is to de-sanctify the world one does. Why make it into a fetish? Why be idolatrous? Indeed, why not be humble and, if it’s true, just accept that you’re doing ‘good work’? And why not leave room thereby for seeing that no work, however good, can ultimately satisfy the human spirit’s deepest longings?

Yet Stickiness Still…

I doubt that my critiques of the calling will persuade many people to give it up and to begin inquiring more deeply into what, modestly understood, work can be in their lives. I doubt this because the one who believes he or she has a calling wants to know—to be assured that—he or she has a genuine home in the world. That is a very strong, very poignant, not to say also potent, desire to have. While I wouldn’t deny him or her that desire to find a home in this world, I would ask him or her to see whether the calling will (can) meet that need.

I wish I could tell this person that if only he gives up the calling, he shall thereby be invited to face up to questions of ultimate concern. I wish I could tell him, and others, that we’re asking too much of work. If he were to listen, then he’d soon learn that the basic questions of human existence entreat him to look inward and upward—urge him to find the vertical dimension within and without and both at once.