Choosing a career path, or a job, can be a difficult and overwhelming task. In our modern American culture, the challenge begins during the school years; as in the American public school system, children and teens are expected to learn the same academic standards, regardless of their future work goals. Students who have less academic and more technical talents may experience frustration from the academic pressures of school. College is also an expected path for many students in America. One selects a major of interest, and while sometimes this major can lead to a practical career, other times it does not, and one graduates wondering, what next? Sometimes one graduates and struggles to get any job simply to pay the bills, rather than selecting a job relevant to one’s studies. The period after graduation can become a confusing although exciting time.
Other countries and cultures have different systems of education. In Germany for example, there are three different educational roads, and the path is chosen when the child is around age 11, based on his/her interests, academic skills, and natural abilities (it is not set in stone however, and can be altered later). One option is the university path for future scholars, researchers, professors, etc., whereas the other two options end earlier (around tenth grade) and prepare students to enter technical or vocational schools, or apprenticeships to become, for example, a nurse, carpenter, or other specific trade. It is recognized in such an educational system that not everyone needs to focus strictly on academics to achieve success, but can start training for a practical career earlier in life.
Ayurvedic philosophy and traditional Indian culture in general, similarly recognize that each person has a unique dharma, or calling in life, and that strict academia is not necessary for everyone. One chooses a career and education based on one’s dharma (doing what comes naturally). According to this system called varnashrama dharma, there are four general categories of varna, or work. First are the brahmanas who are intellectuals, priests, teachers, and academically inclined folks. They are considered the head of society, as they can offer wisdom and guidance for others’ wellbeing. Next are the ksatriyas who offer protection and security, keeping law and order, and are akin to the arms of society. The vaisyas are the farmers and businesspeople. They grow food which we need for survival, and conduct other forms of business, and are the stomach of society. The sudras are the legs of society. They assist and offer manual labor for the other three classes. All four varnas are equally important for the functioning of society, just as a human body functions best with a head, arms, stomach, and legs. Varnasrama dharma is not a caste system in which one is born into a profession, or in which the sudras are treated poorly and the brahmanas treated with respect. Rather, varnasrama dharma recognizes individual differences in people’s strengths and skills, and offers a path for each person, with all working cooperatively for the smooth functioning of society. According to this system, like the one in Germany, not everyone is expected to follow a strict university/academic path. Rather, each student is to be trained in a path that is well suited for his/her future goals.
Although our public education system encourages more of the one size fits all approach, we can still make ourselves aware of the concept of dharma when choosing our career path (whether immediately after graduation or later in life). Dharma involves choosing a career based on your genuine calling in life, rather than giving into society’s subtle messages that we are to choose the job with the most money or best benefits. The word vocation comes from the latin root “vocatio” which literally means a calling. A job need not be something you simply do from 9-5 so you can come home, pay your rent, and enjoy some food and a few hours of relaxation or entertainment after a long day. People who have jobs that are just “to pay the rent” are often looking forward to Friday and regretting Mondays. This is not how life has to be! If you find yourself suffering through each work week, perhaps you have chosen a job that is just a job, rather than a vocation. Each of you, yes even you, has a unique talent, skill, or purpose that can be used to offer service to others while earning you a living that you truly enjoy. A vocation is a place of happiness, not just a place to get a paycheck.
How do you know what your vocation or dharma is? A vocation is that which you love to do. You feel like your genuine self when doing it, and are not looking at the clock waiting for the day to end. Deep down, you know what it is. It may take some courage, it may take some breaking out of the comfort zone, it may carry a reduction of salary, but everyone can work a vocation instead of a job. If doing so would lead to a reduction of salary, one must ask, does earning more money actually make me happy? We have all heard stories of people who were earning more money than they ever thought possible, but were not necessarily happy. I met one such lady who quit her high paying job and followed the path she genuinely wanted to follow, and is now more satisfied. If your dharma involves earning large amount of money, that is fine. The point is not to put down riches themselves, but to emphasize that riches alone, at the expense of following your true path, is not enough to bring satisfaction. If you spend 40 hours a week doing something, that something should be meaningful to you.
Whether you have recently graduated from school, or are contemplating a career change, I encourage you to ask yourself, what is my vocation, or dharma, rather than what job is easy to get and will pay my bills? Just think – if we were born to do something, won’t our basic needs be provided for if we do that which we are truly meant to do? It is a matter of faith, but talk with those who have taken that leap of faith and chosen the road of vocation and you will see the results for yourself. Choose Dharma, choose happiness!