Why the winner doesn't take it all
About 15 years ago I was trying to make it as an academic theologian. This is a pretty niche area and others have written helpfully about some of the challenges of that world. (See this great blog from Lucy Peppiatt). My experience was of being around a lot of people who were different to me, but on first glance mostly seemed quite similar to each other. There still aren’t all that many women in systematic theology and not everyone thinks that a distinct West Midlands accent is an inducement to take someone seriously. At a conference, at which I felt the lack of belonging to one of the dominant cliques, I chatted to a systematic theologian, Karen Kilby. I made some comment to the effect that there were so many impressive people around that I would never be as good as them. She looked at me a little surprised and said something like: “I don’t really see it in terms of a competition”. I am sure she doesn’t remember the conversation, or me, but it stayed with me and in many ways I have spent the last decade or so trying to work out how she could be right.
Trying to get jobs, trying to get published, all feels very competitive. You aren’t all going to get the job, only one of you is and when there are far more people who want them than there are jobs, it’s easy to focus on the competition and its easy for thoughts of winning and losing to sneak in. Academic theology was the world I knew, but it is the same in lots of other fields: my friend who is a journalist has reapplied for her own job several times and constantly has to demonstrate growing readerships. It’s not enough for her to be in competition with others – she has to be in competition with herself! My brother is doing paramedic training and competed against hundreds of others to get a place on the course. And it’s not just at work. There are loud voices persuading you that everything is a competition: getting married, buying a house, having a child, parenting, where you go on holidays …and it goes on.
I am the same age as Ant McPartlin (the media savvy among you will know that he has been having some very much reported difficulties lately). The other day I commented to a friend that I am the same as age as him and for the first time, I am probably doing better. It was a joke, but their response was something along the lines of “are you keeping score?”. In his book Status Anxiety, the philosopher Alain de Botton says that we only compare ourselves to people we have reason to; so we don’t look at the Royal Family and think that we have failed to travel as much as them, but we might well look at people we grew up with and wonder why their house is so much bigger or smaller. That’s why school reunions are notoriously stressful!
Morrissey has a song that goes, “we hate it when our friends become successful, and if they’re northern that makes it even worse…” I’ve never hated my friends’ success or resented it, but I have measured myself against it. Life often feels like a competition and we are constantly being pitted against other people, and we are constantly measuring ourselves against others. Last year I saw a friend who I rarely see now on account of him being an important professor in the USA. He has published about a million books and is well known in his field. Back in the day I thought it might be my field too. We went for several of the same jobs – that’s how I know him. At one time I wanted all of that. He has worked extremely hard for it and he has done what he set out to do. I have done something different. And I realised that it’s ok. Because it’s not about competition, it’s about vocation.
The thing about vocation is that it really isn’t a competition. And I have come to realise that this is immensely freeing. The only thing you need to be best at is being you. I don’t have to have the income of Ant and Dec or the accent of an old fashioned radio presenter. I don’t have be as clever or well-read or as up-to-date on the latest debates in academic theology as my friend. I don’t have to be as kind as my sister or as fit as my brother and it’s even possibly true that I don’t have to be as funny as my favourite comedians. I don’t even have to be as good a Christian as anyone else. I just have to be the best Christian I can be.
Vocation isn’t about comparing yourself to others, it’s about discernment – working out who it is that God calls me to be and having the courage to be that even when it’s disappointing or unpopular or boring or not the thing I was expecting and had worked for. It’s alright not to be as good as other people, because even the notion of asking ‘where am I on the leader board?’ is the wrong question to ask. There are far, far better questions. Martin Luther King said: “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'”. That’s a pretty good one. I think “what sort of presence do you want to be in the world?” is another good one and there are hundreds of other questions about what brings you joy, what your gifts are, who you want to champion, how people see Jesus through you, and what the point of you is, that are all better than comparing where you are in your life with where someone else is or where you thought you should be at this age or stage.
Vocation sets you free. Free from all the things you don’t need to be and free to become the person God has called you to be. Free to know that the knocks and bumps and closed doors are about discernment more than they are about competition. Sometimes you might be called to batter that door down and sometimes it might be right to walk away as it’s slammed in your face. Vocation sets you free to learn to enjoy your unique set of gifts and to accept that it might well not be the selection you had ordered. None of us are as tall/smart/quick/generous/pretty/rich /successful as the next person and accepting that frees us to work out what we are instead. Discovering your vocation is life giving. And yes, someone else is better at working out their vocation than you are. And that’s ok.
Dr Lindsey Hall, Director of Vocations
22 April is Vocations Sunday and we will be launching The Great Vocation Conversation, encouraging one conversation about Vocations every month with #oneamonth. Look out for a range of resources on the website and social media over the next few days. For more information on Vocations and Training click here.