Literally, occupation and vocation can both literally mean “a profession” — these are both words that can simply describe your job. But language is powerful in that words that have the same definition can connotatively mean different things because of how we use them and what the words evoke.
Occupation has a humdrum connotation in everyday use. It’s a line to fill in on a form: list your occupation. It’s also defined simply as “a way of spending time” — yaaaaaawn. Digging deeper, its word root comes from the term for possessing something. You can hear in this the echoes of the world wars, when “occupation” was how we described countries that had been taken over by invading enemies. Not a happy thing to invoke.
Vocation elicits something different. Its usage can refer to trades, which are increasingly being destigmatized and rightly held up as steady careers with strong earning power. In the Catholic tradition, it can describe those who go into the priesthood and religious life. And by definition, vocation can also describe “a strong feeling of suitability for a particular profession.” Vocation contains the root word for “call.” So rather than describing a job as just a way of spending time, vocation is meant to describe something inside of you with deeper roots and more intense passion.
Now, your occupation and your vocation don’t have to overlap. Sometimes, the job that’s plainly available to us or the job that we need to do nicely aligns with our deeper joys and passions; other times, our hopes and dreams may not match the realities or necessities before us.
Perhaps some ladder-climbing is necessary to reach the level of responsibility in your career that you’ve dreamed about. For me, I once wanted to be a reporter. As I learned about the industry, I knew that it would involve some un-glamorous assignments before I could cover what I wanted. For example, as a freshman reporter for my college newspaper, I would’ve enjoyed covering the football team right away but instead was the co-reporter for tennis (no offense to tennis!). Paying your dues and earning your way upward in your occupation might be necessary to gain the work you more passionately desire.
For others, it might be too difficult to make your passion your full-time job. This route might mean finding a job where you punch the clock, which provides you a steady living so that you have the time, money, and freedom to pursue your passions on your own time. Maybe you love graphic design but cannot find the right job with the right pay in the right place. So instead, you find a more conventional, more lucrative business job and moonlight running your own Etsy design shop. In this case, your occupation might be business while your vocation may be something differently creative.
A lot of parents feel a strong pull to be stay-at-home moms or dads so they can spend maximum time with their young kids. The realities of bills, the things you want to provide, and the future you want to save up for could all necessitate that you work more than you might like, however. As a result, while parents probably feel a strong vocation to parenthood and family life, their time may be largely occupied by work to support their family. Some may work a job that maximizes their earning power and their ability to provide for their family, which would definitely be an occupation. Others may find a way to earn enough working in something that more closely fits their passions. Responding to this dual call to both a strongly desired profession as well as a strongly desired state of life is called multiple vocations.
We could continue spelling out more scenarios, but the important thing is to be self-aware — about the vocation you discern, the passions and joys you feel, and the job or career you are in. It is spiritually tenable to be in a job that isn’t your passion as long as you’re well aware of it and find ways to balance necessity with aspiration. Sustain hobbies; scratch your creative itches; communicate with significant others, friends, and family members about your need to have space for your passions outside of work.
Finally, sometimes the abstract idea of a vocation — a calling — can be overwhelming. It’s easy to imagine a vocation coming to us with a blinding light or blaring trumpets or some dramatic revelation. In reality, discerning our vocations is more of a low-key, subdued, long game. Rather than an overt moment, clarity usually stems from long-term reflection. As such, it can be more helpful to think of your vocation not just as a call — which may or may not become apparent in a sudden or distinctive moment — but as an invitation from God, and as one that may come gradually over time and in a variety of ways.
God created each of us to reflect His love, and our vocation is the primary way God invites us to animate that love. Our occupation may or may not be part of responding to that invitation. If it is, then our passions find expression in our work. If it isn’t, we need to ensure our life includes other ways that our vocation can be lived out. That self-awareness and intentionality sets the table for discerning God’s invitation and responding, so that we can become the person God made each of us to be.