In earlier ages a person followed one profession for an entire lifetime. He was a farmer, a teacher, a businessman, or a carpenter all his working days. She was a homemaker, a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary during the period of her employment.
One of the many shifts in the work force and in the nature of the economy has been the phenomenon of multiple careers, people changing their professions and entering new fields several times in the course of earning a living.
While poor wages, new opportunities, or recent interests motivate this diversification of work and change of vocation, many advantages follow the pursuit of a single vocation that encompasses a lifetime of earning a livelihood doing the work which one loves and which serves others.
In a mobile world of many opportunities and new careers with the lure of travel to new locations, the ideal of one lifetime profession at one location for the span of many years lacks the allure of excitement, novelty, adventure, and change. It hints of the deadliness of monotony rather than the stimulation of variety.
It appears confining and stultifying rather than broadening or educational.
It is easy to assume that to live is to grow and to grow is to change and to change is to move or begin again and again. Yet this model of work in the modern world overlooks many of the special advantages that accrue from commitment to a single vocation or profession in the course of a person’s working days spent in one place.
Plato in The Republic argued that society thrives and prospers best when each person does one thing well rather than many things with average ability:
“. . . each of the other citizens too must be brought to that which naturally suits him—one man, one job—so that each man, practicing his own, which is one, will not become many but one; and thus, you see, the whole city will naturally grow to be one and not many.”
St. Benedict’s Rule not only commits the monk to his priestly vows but also to a vow of stability to discourage the restlessness of change and fascination with novelty. He especially reprimands the type of monks he calls
“gyrovagues, who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three of four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are the slaves to their own wills and gross appetites.”
Living as a breadwinner in the twenty-first century, of course, is not the same as living in ancient Greek society or a monastery, but the principle of “one person, one job” and the need to “settle down” apply to all who work.
Achieving Excellence & Experience
To practice one craft or art in the course of an entire lifetime naturally develops expertise and bestows the comprehensive knowledge of a master who knows his trade in its finest details and larger vision. A lifetime of experience in one field offers a special wisdom that is not easily gained from mere formal education.
To be the best or most accomplished or most knowledgeable in any line of work requires the wealth of experience and practice that a single profession cultivates in the course of many years.
No one achieves excellence quickly or easily, and the best education only provides preparation for one’s life work that gains perfection from continuation and regularity in the chosen field. The most valuable knowledge and the highest performance of work come from those versed in one area of study or accomplishment.
Stability, permanence, and continuity confer many benefits for those who work and for those whom they serve. An esteemed reputation for quality of service, reasonable prices, outstanding workmanship, and good treatment or advice follow from years of commitment and a habitual worth ethic of honor and integrity.
Practically speaking, it is better to know a great deal about one subject than to know a few things about many areas of learning. It is better to possess a depth of knowledge in one field rather than a superficial familiarity with many subjects.
To be the best business person, dentist, cook, coach, or musician, a person needs to pursue the one field of learning for the course of many years, acquiring a repertory of ideas and insights that lead to mastery and skill in performance.
Creating Deep Roots & Strong Attachments
The greater and deeper this repertory is, the more the wisdom gained and the more prudent the decision-making and judgment. While the lure of change, more lucrative offers, and prestigious titles are always tempting, the loss often outweighs the gain.
To begin again and again means to lose one’s loyal clientele, to lose the earned reputation of one’s upright character that accompanies dedication to one task in one place over the course of a lifetime.
To grow in one place and to do one kind of work for a lifetime creates deep roots and strong attachments. To “settle down” combats the restlessness that St. Benedict attempts to overcome in monks ruled by wanderlust. However, all human beings need to settle down, find their niche, and recognize their part of the vineyard.
To do any form of good work that serves one’s neighbor and gives glory to God possesses depths or layers that are discovered only in the course of time through the accumulation of experience and repetition.
Goodness and excellence are not shallow, superficial, or transitory. They possess inexhaustible riches or many layers reached only by dint of constant practice and discovery. The nature of any work that qualifies as an “art,” for example, acquires more refinement and perfection the longer one practices the craft.
There is always more to learn, another secret to uncover, another technique to try, another master from whom to learn.
A Labor of Love
In Robert Frost’s poem “The Mountain,” a young tourist who visits a famous site that mountain climbers hike, Mount Hor, asks many questions of an old farmer who has lived around the mountain and farmed in the town of Lunenburg all his life.
The traveler asks questions like “What town is this?” “Where is your village?” “Is that the way to reach the top from here?” “You’ve never climbed it?” “You never saw it [the brook that is warm in winter but cold in summer]? “Can one walk around it?” “You’ve lived here all your life?”
While the farmer answers all the tourist’s factual questions, he adds some anecdotes and some of the local lore. He knows so much about the mountain because he has been deer hunting and fishing on the sides and learned from the reports of other tourists who have climbed to the top. He reassures the traveler that it is true, not contradictory, to say the brook at the top of the mountain is “cold in summer, warm in winter.” He is not speaking nonsense.
His impressive fund of knowledge about the towering mountain and all its ways and by-ways—his great wisdom about this vast imposing natural wonder (“That thing takes all the room!”)—comes from living in one place all his life and doing one kind of work.
As the old farmer says to the young tourist, “It doesn’t seem so much to climb a mountain/ You’ve worked around the foot of all your life.”
By living a settled life in one place, by traveling around the mountain time and time again, and by engaging in farming for a lifetime, the old man has gained wide knowledge about all aspects of Mount Hor from the smaller details to the grand features.
He answers every question, possesses a wealth of information, and offers to the visitor the ripened wisdom of a lifetime. He lives in peace going around and around the same mountain because each time he makes a new discovery, learns a new fact, and hears new things from the accounts of other travelers.
Wisdom comes from depth of experience, a single-minded commitment to a labor of love in the course of a lifetime and a strong attachment to a place and the people one serves.
Have you had multiple careers? What do you think? What would you do differently?