Graduation, Leadership

Having a Vocation, a Purpose, a Calling

By Bob Bruner-

Here are the remarks to Darden’s Class of 2011 that I gave at the graduation ceremony.

At this time of year, friends, family, and professors tend to ask the annoying question, “Have you got a job?”  You probably resisted answering it for as long as you could.  But they persisted: “Have you got a job?” 

The full-time students left a job, spent 21 months at Darden, and are on the launch pad back into professional life.  It is natural for acquaintances to ask, “Have you got a job?”  MBA for Exec students find this a relevant question too: most if not all have a job and yet aspire for more.  They came to Darden to reach higher.  For them, the whispered question is, “Are you set for your next job?”

Well, I’m here to tell you all something extremely important, that a mentor of mine, Peter Gomes, used to say: by “job” we don’t mean simply something that gives you a salary.  We really mean: “Do you have a purpose?  Do you have a calling?  Do you have a vocation?”  I want to suggest to you that whether or not you have a job, everyone has a vocation and that vocation is to live a life that is worth living. 

Michael Novak wrote that business can be a “calling,” something more than just a job.  He said, “Business is a demanding vocation, and one is not good at it just by being in it, or even by making piles of money.  The bottom line of a calling is measured by pain, learning, and grace.  Having a good year in financial terms is hard enough; having a good year in fulfilling one’s calling means passing tests that are a lot more rewarding…Doing anything as a calling—especially doing something quite difficult—is a lot more fulfilling than merely drifting.”   John D. Rockefeller said that if your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.  A calling is about impact in the world.  It is about service to someone.  Quite often, it is fulfilled in a non-obvious place, rather different from the herd of fashion and conventional thinking.  A vocation is not necessarily easy, costless, or convenient.

A vocation isn’t just about money, power, or fame.  We have Darden graduates who garnered all of these, but did so as a consequence of a calling to delight customers, invent new products, or build vibrant organizations.  Some have jobs at the very top of their field where their service as leaders is prominent and impactful.   Others served a calling in equally important, but less obvious, ways. 

•    Trammel Summers, a graduate of the Class of 2009, an excellent student, declined a job offer with the top firm in his field, in order to work close to home here in the South, so that he could help to care for his brother who suffered a brain injury.
•    Christine Shim of the Class of 2004 left her investment banking job to work for a year at a fraction of the banking salary with Michele Rhee, who dramatically restructured the Washington, D.C. public school system. 
•    Lee Murray of the Class of 1985 pursued a business career.  She had some ideas about how her city could be run better.  So she ran for Mayor.  After her successful election, she brought new processes and controls that served the city well.  
•    Finally, two Darden graduates of the Class of 2009, Chip Ransler and Manoj Sinha, founded a firm that commercialized new technology to generate electricity from agricultural by-products.  Their successful entrepreneurship brings electricity to poor villages in India and harnesses a vision of renewable energy.  

I can offer many other examples of Darden alums who chose their jobs out of a sense of vocation.  You should too.  That is my advice to you at this commencement of the rest of your life. 

Your time at Darden has had a lot to say about vocations and living a life that is worth living.   For instance, a definition of the life that is worth living will vary across people and across time.  We should respect the diversity of such views as we engage with co-workers and members of a community.  Your learning teams have been a microcosm of such diversity.

And your time at Darden probably has affirmed that the definition of vocation isn’t a fixed idea—it will vary as you grow through time.  I’ll wager that your 21 months at Darden are proof positive of this.  If vocation varies as you grow, you must listen carefully and continuously for the vocation to which you are called.

A vocation is not some abstraction that you put in a box somewhere and look at from time to time.  It should be with you every day and affect even the smallest decisions.  Your conception of a vocation will drive choices, in the moment, in real time, in a way that is meaningful.  For this reason, all the tools that we teach you at Darden come together in a strategic way when you have a purpose, a vocation, a calling.

In the wake of the subprime crisis, we heard fresh attacks on capitalism, many of them centered around the sense of alienation of people from the work they do.  The way to withstand such alienation and to reflect thoughtfully on the extraordinary economic promise of capitalism is to live and work with purpose. 

The mission of the Darden School is to improve society by developing principled leaders for the world of practical affairs.  We believe that living with purpose is an essential ingredient of having impact as a leader and achieving happiness for yourself and those around you.  Helen Keller said, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

Do you have a job?  That’s not the right question.  Do you have a vocation, a calling, a purpose?  Only you can answer that.  As your Dean, my final admonition to you is to search for, and live, that purpose in all you do.

Godspeed to you.  And thank you.