A friend of mine wrote a tweet that really made me think the other day:
I understand arguments against a default “vocational awe,” but much of the discourse denies the existence and validity of vocations. Some think of what they do as more than a job. They feel called to it. Not everyone is, and that’s okay. But some are, and we should respect that.
— Tim Spalding 🇺🇦 (@librarythingtim) December 18, 2022
I don’t deny the existence of a sense of vocation. And I think the whole idea of vocational awe recognizes that lots of people come into helping professions with this sense of vocation or calling. But Tim goes beyond that in suggesting that we should respect that some people feel called to their profession and have made that choice for themselves. I think he means to separate an individual’s sense of vocation from vocational awe as a system of oppression. And I find that interesting. As if the choices of individuals are somehow separate from the larger systems. This really got me thinking: is a sense of vocational awe always harmful? And my answer after spending a few days mulling it over is “yes.”
Vocational awe for the individual can feel very very good… until it doesn’t. That sense of purpose is a powerful drug. I came into this profession with a healthy dose of vocational awe after leaving another helping profession, which means I should have known better but didn’t. Vocational awe is more than loving your job or caring about doing a good job. It’s a deep sense of identification with your work where your work becomes a core part of your identity. It’s more than a job; it’s something you were called to do (by God, but like the protestant work ethic, it’s mostly lost its religious connotations). It drives you to go “above and beyond” for your job and you feel good about doing it. For people who have experienced trauma and/or oppression, this deep identification can feel very good when you’re doing well in your work. Each achievement or accolade is another opportunity to feel a sense of self-efficacy, of worthiness. I remember that feeling well. But the flip side is that when things go wrong, you also see that as a referendum on your worth. If your sense of self is wrapped up in your work, having a boss who doesn’t like you, being demoted, being laid off, being mistreated by toxic colleagues, can cause deep wounds to one’s psyche. I’ve written in the past about my own experience with this and how it led to the worst depression of my life. I’ve also heard from so many people who had a similar experience and how it broke them. How they went from happily going above and beyond to questioning their own worthiness. No job is worth that. Crocker and Knight write about this phenomenon and the costs of making one’s self-esteem contingent on performance in one area of one’s life in the article “Contingencies of Self-Worth” (which Jennifer Crocker has written about extensively in other publications as well) and argue that “contingencies of self-worth are both sources of motivation and areas of psychological vulnerability.”
Tying your sense of self to your job can also be problematic when you are unable to devote the same amount of yourself to your work as you used to. Perhaps when you just had a baby. Or your spouse is diagnosed with cancer. Or you develop a disabling chronic illness. People whose sense of self-efficacy is tied tightly to their identity as a good worker struggle much more with the idea that they need to shift their priorities. After having my son, I remember the tremendous guilt I felt for years; both that I was not doing enough as a librarian and that I was not doing enough as a mother. Nothing I did ever felt like enough in either area of my life/identity. I spent more than a decade muscling through my migraines to teach classes, staff the reference desk, etc. instead of taking the time I needed to care for myself. Vocational awe encourages people to put their physical needs and the needs of their family members last. It was only when I’d recognized my workaholism and also that I was enough just as I am that I was able to start prioritizing my well-being over what really is just a job. I didn’t need to keep providing myself to be “enough.” But also, my working through my migraines helped contribute to a culture where others with limitations felt like they had to do the same. It was not just vocational awe, but internalized ableism.
The other piece of vocational awe is an idealization of our profession. Fobazi Ettarh, who defined this term that is so relevant to all helping professions, wrote that it’s about seeing “libraries as institutions are inherently good and sacred, and therefore beyond critique.” While that idealization can lead us to martyr ourselves for our jobs, it can also make it all the more brutal when we at some point are rudely awakened to the fact that our profession is just as oppressive as the rest of society. It can feel like a betrayal for those who really saw this profession as something that stood apart from all that. I think that awakening tends to happens much more quickly (if they ever idealized it at all) for library workers who are BIPOC, LGBTQ2IA, have disabilities, and/or are from another historically marginalized group. Maybe some White, straight, Christian male librarians never experience that and can go on seeing librarianship as a city on a hill, but it’s a tremendously privileged space to be in. (And speaking of privilege, it is often the people most marginalized in our field who feel the most pressure to attain a vision of “professionalism” that looks a lot like vocational awe.) And I think the realization of that schism between our idealized view and the reality, can often feel like a deep betrayal. It can lead straight to burnout.
The other problem is that vocation is anathema to solidarity with one’s fellow workers. No matter how poorly library workers are paid or treated, a library worker full of vocational awe would never strike because it would be bad for patrons. How could we withhold our help??? Because service to patrons is always going to be more important. I remember at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a colleague who was twisting herself into a pretzel trying to come up with ways for us to continue providing in-person reference services “safely” when most libraries were closing. In her mind, our responsibility to provide reference services in-person trumped our personal safety and our responsibility to protect the public health. I feel like a lot of this sort of vocational awe is ego-driven. We are just so needed. What would people do without us?? It’s nice to feel like what we do is important, but it shouldn’t be at the cost of the well-being of our colleagues.
And let’s be real. Most libraries run on vocational awe. No matter how much gets cut from the budget, no matter how stretched library workers become, people willing to go above and beyond will continue to plug the holes. They will continue to do more with less, which really means working more than one full-time job. Vocational awe is what allows libraries to run on austerity budgets. It’s what allows directors and deans to never address scope creep and increasing workloads. Because someone will always step up. And regardless of whether you are full of vocational awe or not, the people who are are creating a culture that expects the same level of commitment from you. And that’s a huge issue. As I mentioned in another recent post, even if you see librarianship as a vocation and are willing to go above and beyond, in making that choice, you are normalizing overwork for others. Because workplace culture is all of us. And until we are all unwilling to tolerate unreasonable workloads, the expectation will always be there and will be greatest for those with the least power and privilege. And we will always be judged against the person doing the most, even if they are working themselves to death.
And what happens when librarians with a sense of vocation become managers? Or when they get on hiring committees? Or manage a project? How could their views about going “above and beyond” not impact how they judge job candidates, who they decide to reward and promote, how they determine reasonable deliverable expectations, etc? Will people just doing their job well ever be considered good enough? I remember when I interviewed at one library, the Dean told me that “people who want to spend time with their families shouldn’t become tenure-track librarians.” I was so taken aback by that, especially because I had a toddler at home. We can pretend that the choices of individuals are somehow separate from the culture, but we each contribute to the culture. And the more power we accrue, the more our ideas about workload and the role of work in our lives influence the culture.
No, I don’t think people who come into the profession with a sense of vocational awe should be disrespected; they come by it honestly. I think there are a lot of forces (and individuals) socializing people coming into the profession to see themselves as being called to this “noble profession.” It was the same when I did my Masters of Social Work; there was a lot of white saviorism b.s. being crammed down our throats. But I don’t think we should respect something that will cause us harm. I think we owe it to our new colleagues to help them see the profession through a critical lens, to recognize the labor dynamics at play, to see that our profession’s leaders capitalize on the vocational awe of library workers to create a culture of overwork, and to recognize that they are doing a great job by “just” doing exactly what their job description asks of them. And someone who still chooses vocational awe, knowing all that, is not an ally. They are not in solidarity with their fellow workers. And no, that choice does not deserve respect. And I say that as someone who once had a strong sense of vocational awe, who once worked herself to the bone for her job, and who believed I was a good colleague because I was doing more than my fair share. I was totally wrong. I don’t think people with a sense of vocation are capable of not causing harm, either to their colleagues or to themselves, even though that is likely the last thing they would have intended.
Read Fobazi Ettarh’s brilliant “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” and ask yourself, “is vocational awe harmful, even from individual people who feel a sense of calling?” I’d love to hear your thoughts, even if you come to a completely different conclusion than I did.
I came to this article prepared to fight it tooth and nail, and I found myself agreeing with so many of your points. The fact that I started this comment wanting to argue against the word ‘harmful’ only proves the point you’re making. I’m in a pretty good workplace with a director who promotes work/life balance but who also doesn’t stop people from putting in extra time. It’s difficult to manage and I’ve seen a lot of places where that above and beyond is expected with no real payoff for the worker. As always, you make me think.
I get it! I had to really think on the question for quite a bit myself. I really struggled with the idea, especially because I was a person who, for a long time, tied my identity to my work and consistently overworked. While I let go of that for my own mental and physical health (as well as to prioritize my family) to own that I likely caused others harm from doing something I thought was good is a painful mental leap.
Thank you for this really thought provoking post. I have been struggling to deal with my own sense of vocational awe, because I always have felt like I was born to be a librarian and can’t imagine doing anything else, although I know that’s not exactly a healthy attitude. My only caveat is that overwork and an unwavering devotion to one’s job is not unique to libraries or other helping professions. My husband struggles with the same things in the corporate world. His boss expects him to go above and beyond and work-life balance is hard to find–I think the finger needs to be pointed at capitalism rather than vocational awe. I look at him and think about how I’d rather grapple with those feelings in a job that’s doing some good in the world rather than in a job that’s just making money for someone else. (Or maybe I’m just deluding myself that there’s a difference…) A lot to think about!
Oh yeah, overwork is definitely not just linked to helping professions, though they are more likely to see behaviors like that as a result of vocational awe. Hustle culture is real and people have been led to believe that if they only work hard enough and prove themselves, they can rise to untold heights in their field. Of course many people in recent years have recognized the falseness of this promise for the vast majority of people (esp. those who aren’t white men with privilege and connections), but it’s hard to let go of that idea in a culture full of mythologies about personal responsibility and limitless individual achievement. And of course, as you mention, managers can create expectations around overwork in any field with the threat of job loss or the promise of promotion. This is why solidarity is critical in any field to combat cultures of overwork. As individuals, it’s virtually impossible to foster culture change, but we can certainly do damage by helping to cement toxic cultures.
I still feel a deep affinity for my work, but I see it for what it is: a job. I think it’s possible to create a balance there where you can be passionate about the work you do and still prioritize your well-being, be in solidarity with your colleagues, and see the profession for what it really is.
Meredith, thank you for the important and thoughtful discussion. Once at a library faculty meeting while discussing salaries, our provost told us something like “…and don’t forget that academia is a calling”. Based on post-meeting chats, it seemed that most of the librarians didn’t buy that (summarized a bit at
https://liaisonlife.wordpress.com/2020/05/18/questions-from-redefining-what-it-takes-for-our-librarians-to-get-tenure/ ). However, I would be reluctant (like Jen above?) to assign too much blame on lower salaries and overwork on this one issue, particularly if we are looking at it with a binary lens (always good versus always bad). Can librarians find value in their work and think its valuable work without practicing harmful vocation awe? Are more nuanced views possible?
I hope you and the other readers have a good holiday break from library work.
Thanks for sharing Steve! Ooof! It sounds even more hollow when the people with most power say stuff about the work being “a calling.” Well of course you want us to believe that! 😉 While I think vocational awe is always a bad thing, that certainly doesn’t mean it’s the *only* cause of overwork or bad pay. But it’s a big one that keeps people willing to accept less than they deserve. Nor do I think it’s a bad thing to enjoy the work you do and want to do a good job at it. I still really do enjoy the work I do and I really care about students. But I don’t put that above solidarity with my fellow library workers and I also don’t let any of it impact how I see myself or make it more important than my family, my health, etc. So yeah, I agree totally that we can enjoy our work without sacrificing ourselves for the work and also without being a bad colleague. Hope you have a restful holiday too!
Thanks for yet another thought-provoking article, Meredith! You make many good points here. The question I am left with, which was your starting point, is whether it is possible to have a sense of vocation without falling into vocational awe. You seem to conclude that they two are basically one in the same, but I wonder whether there is any space for a healthy sense of vocation in the world that does not descend into the many problematic elements of vocational awe. I’d like to believe it is possible. But I may be naïve. And the fact that my career path started in pastoral ministry before moving into librarianship (LONG story) probably does not help my case here. Thanks for all of your thoughtful contributions to our profession!
It’s a really good question, Brian. I’d like to believe, too, that you can have vocation without vocational awe, but I’m struggling to see what that would look like. I think the awe is what makes it feel like a vocation. And I’m sure you have a really unique take based on your experience in pastoral work, whereas I previously worked in an even more grueling (than librarianship) helping profession even more suffused with vocational awe (social work). I don’t want to say “no, it’s impossible to have vocation without vocational awe,” but, for me, it’s hard to picture based on my own experiences.
Hi, I got here from Library Link of the day!
I agree with pretty much all of this, but I particularly wanted to thank you for spelling out out how someone who does see this as a calling and makes a personal choice to go above and beyond is still normalizing overwork for the rest of us.
I was really lucky in my first library supervisor, who told me to put in my eight hours and go home, and leave work at work, but I still catch myself feeling inadequate when someone mentions they’re working through a migraine (and I had a colleague who did this, so you’re not the only one).
Becca, you were indeed lucky to have a first boss who encouraged your work-life balance. I had a really fantastic first supervisor who encouraged me like no one else, but she was definitely filled with vocational awe herself and with my office literally across from hers (we could watch each other work all day), I had a really hard time leaving work at a reasonable hour when she was often there working well beyond normal hours. Even when the expectations aren’t explicit, you learn so much from how your boss conducts themself. It really took having a terrible boss for me to see that there was no real reward for going above and beyond. And, yes, I still have colleagues who never set boundaries and do way too much. While that used to make me feel guilty and pressured to do more, I’ve gotten better at seeing it for what it is and just feeling sorry for them that they feel this internalized pressure to do more more more.
I loved your post and it fit in with a number of things I’ve been thinking about, so this response is more scattered than your post but does talk about the dangers of “vocational awe” particularly as it pertains to our being continually asked to do more with less.
Thank you for always challenging my thinking!
Laura, I really like what you write in your post and one linked to it about standards for librarians. I’ve seen so many standards for so many different types of librarians, but what I haven’t seen are standards for the sort of support library workers need to meet those standards. I remember reading something about the changing nature of the liaison librarian and all the things they needed to master and I was like “how the fuck are we supposed to do that without additional support, training, people, etc.?” These standards seem unnecessarily cruel when they do not also clearly include what institutions need to do to help employees achieve those standards. Because, in a work world full of vocational awe, of course most library workers look at those standards and feel inadequate or work twice as hard to try to meet something they couldn’t possibly even with twice the resources they currently have. Thanks for sharing!!!
I am reminded of someone years ago on a listserv (I think?) who said something to the effect of “just because we all took sled dogs to ALA Midwinter and stayed in hostels four to a bed doesn’t mean that was a good idea at the time or that we should ask or younger colleagues to do so,” and I remember sort of scoffing because of course we *should* all have the sled dog level of dedication, even if I lacked it. In retrospect, how right that person was.
Sooo right! I might have been full of vocational awe back then, but not as much as some, if this post is any indication: https://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/2006/03/04/martyrdom-and-ala/
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. So much I could say, but just thanks.
YESSSS. So many good points in this!
I really appreciate this reflection and agree with your point of view so much. Through my own vocational awe journey and burnout, I have been wrestling with these ideas, too. I am actually moving out of librarianship (but staying in higher ed. – thanks PSLF!) because of some of these issues.
A few thoughts I had:
Could assumptions we make about our love of our vocation (and even more with vocational awe) actually be just a manifestation of our personal values? Our values can still be important to us but should be spread out to all parts of our life instead of focusing solely on our work. I think because work is so much of our lives it is an easier place to focus, but we can still recognize our values such as seeking justice, and loyalty, using our talents to contribute to something bigger, and our commitment to our word with our family, our community, our spiritual life, and our relationships. I think
I also think there is lots of nuance to the vocational awe vs. vocation love discussion that definitely involves gender and socialization that is hard to explain to men.
I worry that the love of vocation serves as an insulator to ourselves and our privilege. Does it prevent me from sometimes doing the hard work of truly listening to someone else’s experiences?