Commentary: When a Career Becomes a Vocation

While I find it hard to believe so many years have gone by, my rapidly graying head of hair is proof to the world that February 2018 marks my 10th anniversary at the Door County Community Foundation.

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks writes that when you choose a career you are looking for work that provides both financial and psychological benefits. You want your career to offer pathways to future job opportunities and room for advancement. If your current job is no longer providing what you deem to be sufficient financial or psychological rewards, you simply choose a different one.

A vocation, on the other hand, is more than a career. Brooks writes that people who have a vocation generally feel like they have no choice in the matter. A vocation is a calling. Brooks notes that you’ve found your vocation when doing anything else makes your life unrecognizable to you.

Philanthropy has been my career for virtually all of my adult life. The Door County Community Foundation is actually the fourth community foundation for which I’ve worked. In fact, I’ve been involved in philanthropy in one form or another for four decades. The path of my career began in third grade when I walked through the mall asking stores to donate items we could raffle off to benefit Pearl Ridge Elementary School in my hometown of Aiea, Hawaii.

Traveling on this career path is what brought me to Door County in the first place. Yet at some point in these last 10 years, the Door County Community Foundation had become more than a job to me. It has become my vocation.

Undoubtedly to the outside world, this is a subtle change and functionally it may not make much difference at all in what I do every day. Yet I know for certain this change has occurred within me. I couldn’t tell you exactly when the transition took place, but I know the precise moment I first realized that working for the Door County Community Foundation had become more than just a step on a career path.

About a year and a half ago, two jobs on opposite sides of the planet opened up at almost exactly the same time. The first position was to lead a foundation in Green Bay – the birthplace of my wife and the city in which we lived during the first years of our marriage. The second job was to lead a foundation in Honolulu – the place of my birth and a city which still tugs at the strings of my heart. Both jobs had long been on my radar screen as possible next steps on my career journey.

Now goodness knows it’s entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that I’m a much better looking candidate on paper than in person. These foundations in Green Bay and Honolulu might not have given me a second look. But that’s beside the point. For the very first time in my life, I didn’t want them to look at me at all.

I remember spending an evening of soul searching with my lovely wife Cari. We discussed how the large asset bases of these foundations could be unleashed to do incredible things under the right leadership. We talked about how these two jobs will likely not open up again for a decade or more. We confronted the reality that as I approach my 50th year of life, I have only one career move left to give me the time necessary to make a meaningful impact in a new community. And while trying to avoid being too shallow, we certainly liked the idea of me making a chunk more money.

The choice was obvious. Of course I was going to pursue both job opportunities. They were in cities we love, at institutions I know, and either job would be a natural next step on my career path.

Yet as much as I tried, I simply could not imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing right now. My life without the Door County Community Foundation – and Door County – would be unrecognizable to me. This place, these people, this community, this work – its past, present, and future have all become inextricably intertwined with me in ways I never expected.

Brooks writes that people with a vocation experience “a certain rapt expression, a hungry desire to perform a dance or run an organization to its utmost perfection. They feel the joy of having their values in deep harmony with their behavior. They experience a wonderful certainty of action that banishes weariness from even the hardest days.”

Certainly Brooks is writing about people whose influence and impact are far greater than anything I will ever achieve.  I have no delusions about my importance in this world. Mine is a modest existence on a small peninsula that I try to better through my work a tiny foundation. But for the first time in my life, I truly understand what it means to have a vocation.

I’ve been at the Door County Community Foundation – and in Door County – for exactly 10 years. Yet it feels like I’ve been here forever, and as if I’m just getting started. There are days which are incredibly rewarding and fill me with satisfaction. Then there are others which frustrate me and demand that I refocus my energies on the task at hand.

Either way, after 10 years, one thing has become crystal clear to me. I simply cannot imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing right now.

Bret Bicoy is president & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].  

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