Dear Artist: Vocation does not equal Exploitation

Five women personal finance bloggers — all of whom have worked in creative professions — have joined to write this series of ‘letters to our younger selves.’ Please see the end of this post for links to others in the series.


I’m turning 37 tomorrow. Sometimes I wish I were still 20 — this feeling reliably comes up in the context of the yoga class I’m taking right now — but mostly I am so grateful to have worked my way through the period of my life when I was vulnerable to the idea that because I was lucky enough to do creative work, I should joyfully consent to sacrifice my financial well-being.

If you’re thinking about a creative or service-oriented career, as an artist, a teacher, a social worker, a filmmaker, even a doctor, you have probably already run across the idea of “vocation.” This is a good SAT word; it means, roughly, “calling,” and it’s borrowed from a religious framework. The one who does the calling is God, and the one who is called is compelled to become a prophet, a priest, a monk, a nun, etc. We use it all the time in everyday speech, though, to signal that same feeling of compulsion — “I feel called to be an artist/teacher/whatever.”

I used to say this too, and it’s true, in a sense. I’ve been working in an academic career for a decade, not because it’s what I most enjoy on a day to day basis (that would be cuddling with the dog and watching tv in bed), but because I felt led in this direction. It’s at the intersection of my desire to “make a difference” and my primary skills/talents. I’m reluctant to let go of this career even though it’s difficult to make a living and to find a long term job, and that reluctance can be directly traced to my sense that this is where I should be. The idea of the arts or teaching or the helping professions as “vocations” means that these career choices carry with them a warm glow, a sense of personal fulfillment, that’s not shared by more prosaic options. (I met a guy last night who sells car parts for a living. He kind of shrugged and said ‘It’s not my dream job.’ What he meant was ‘it’s not my vocation.’)

But there’s a dark side to the word “vocation.” Consider the infrastructure of the Catholic church in the United States — the hundreds of Catholic hospitals and schools. The vast majority of these institutions were only possible because the nuns who built and staffed them worked for virtually no compensation. This is a business model whose limits have become dramatically clear as the number of nuns available to teach and nurse has seriously declined in the last few decades. Institutions that once balanced their budgets on the assumption that they had almost no labor costs have struggled to compensate lay employees as a result.

One of the ways that universities, literary magazines, nonprofits, etc etc, make their finances work is, unfortunately, by playing on the emotions of people who feel some kind of calling. The emotional fulfillment of following your vocation compensates for a lower salary than you’d get in “the private sector” — ok, I might go that far. But people guided by the concept of vocation often go further. I hear it a lot from adjunct professors and humanities graduate students, whose work is so badly undercompensated that they typically struggle to keep food on the table, even as they provide a huge amount of teaching labor that makes American universities run. Take this guy, quoted in Slate a couple of years ago, who told the reporter that “abandoning a class mid-semester is ‘a serious professional taboo’ for adjuncts.” That article concludes that adjuncts’ “sense of professional duty is what, ironically, prevents them from finding a job in which they’re treated like professionals.”

That quote resonates with me. I do understand why adjuncts continue to take these awful jobs and not only that, to stay in them even when better-paying work beckons. It’s hard to give up a dream, especially when you feel a strong sense of duty or calling or responsibility. But I now think it’s crucial to remind ourselves, every day, that our vocations (in this case, our sense of duty to students) are not an excuse for administrators to make us charity cases — and they are not a reason for us to participate in our own exploitation.

Looking back at my younger self, I see an idealistic young woman who believed that the main purpose of a vocation-job was for the employee to give, to serve, and the main purpose of an employer was to enable that giving and serving. I wish I could say to her, your labor is financially valuable to the institutions that employ you. Your vocation does not mean that you have to enrich others at your own expense. You need to pay the rent, put food on the table, and save for the future. Don’t let your potential employers try to pay you in the warm glow of fulfillment alone.

What else should young artists know about money? Check out the other posts in this series:

Stefanie O’Connell (The Broke and Beautiful Life), “Dear Artists: You Can Profit From Your Creative Skills”

Tonya Stumphauzer (Budget and the Beach), “Dear Artists: A Little Goes a Long Way”

Amanda Page (Dream Beyond Debt), “Dear Artist: It’s Not the Struggle That’s Interesting”

Melanie Lockert (Dear Debt), “Dear Artist: Your Creativity Is Your Greatest Asset”

21 thoughts on “Dear Artist: Vocation does not equal Exploitation

  1. It sort of reminds me with video freelancing how many producers said, “we can’t pay you much, but this will look good on your reel.” Uh, I’ve been doing this for 20 years so I have plenty of good stuff on my reel already. It frustrates me that many of our jobs that involve teaching our children are the lowest paying. 🙁

    1. thesingledollar says:

      omg, YES. “We can’t pay you much but it’ll be so great for these other reasons” really doesn’t hold water when you know perfectly well that someone is making bank off your work. It’s just not you.

  2. Hannah says:

    I’ve found these letters to be really fascinating. I especially relate to this letter because up until a month or two before graduating from college, I thought I would go into vocational ministry. My dad encouraged me to spend just 1-2 years working because he said that it’s important for people in ministry roles to understand the struggles of those who fund them (and my mom had cancer, so he wanted me to move home to help out).

    I think spending a few years being highly compensated for my talents has helped me to realize that there are some talents I would prefer to give away rather than earn some money for them, and there are other talents that I can earn a lot of money for, and there’s no reason not to do so (those talents wouldn’t so much lie in the helping underprivileged women category).

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh man, I agree so much. It’s one thing to give your labor for free because you genuinely want to, and another because some entity that can afford to pay you is manipulating you into taking less than you’re worth. I’ve basically come down to, there are some areas where I want to give it away, and some where I want to get paid, vocation or no vocation!

  3. Preach girl! Yes! We are valuable and worth it. It’s hard to get out of that “job” mindset, but once you value yourself other opportunities open up.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yes — it really all starts with valuing yourself.

  4. Jessica says:

    This is such an important message! I know that I have let myself get stuck in jobs that didn’t pay me what I was worth out of a sense of duty. I tend to feel so obligated to an employer that I get taken advantage of. I think it can be especially hard for women because we tend to want to please others at our own expense. This is definitely something I’m working on, so I appreciate the motivation!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I am so over feeling obligated to employers; at the end of the day, not even the best of them is that loyal to me, so I don’t feel (any more) that I need to be loyal to them.

  5. NZ Muse says:

    Just want to say I am loving this series!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thank you! I love everyone’s entries too. Hope some young people find and read them 🙂

  6. What a cool series! Yours is the first one I’m reading, but I will definitely check out the others as well.

    Oh gosh, adjuncting…I think your perspective on this is very wise. I know so many people who adjunct, who, as you say, hold themselves to a very high professional standard, but are not treated or paid as true professionals. I have made a promise to myself not to adjunct full-time; I will only do it if I have some sort of regular full-time job outside academia and am teaching an evening course for extra money, or something of that nature.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. To me it feels very related to a lot of the thinking/writing I’ve done in the past few months about career and money, but from a bit of a different perspective (I hadn’t really factored in the vocation element), so it definitely made me think.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I made the same promise to myself — no adjuncting. It’s such a trap! But even with that line in the sand, I still find myself having to think in various situations about whether someone is using my love for students (etc) as an excuse to not pay me. It’s really important to think through, so good for you for doing it now instead of ten years from now 🙂

  7. Jason says:

    I so resonate with this post. I love my job, but there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think about doing something else or getting more training for more money or at least have a job where I can just go home at the end of the day and be done. We were in a meeting with our new president last week and my colleague literally broke down because he and his wife have to ask every year whether or not they could continue to live here. This post is great.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh man, what a rotten story about your colleague especially 🙁 It’s getting tougher to live in big cities even on pretty good academic salaries — and you’re so right that we work way more hours than at a “normal” job because we can’t let it go at the end of the day. Sigh. Glad you liked the post.

  8. Kara says:

    Great read and great message. Especially to women. The world wants to, and will, underpay us at every turn. Learning to buck that as well as truly believe the value in yourself is so, so important for everyone. This series y’all did has been really interesting and I’m so glad for it!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thank you! As you know I think you are very underpaid 🙂 And there are a lot of other people out there who are too, so I hope this series gets to some of them eventually….

  9. For years, in addition to my main “career job,” I also worked as a yoga teacher. I had to stop because I got to a point in my career when I could no longer do both, but it was something I loved doing on the side for almost a decade (and the side hustle income was nice, too). I bring this up because everything you said totally resonates with me regarding that role. You’re supposed to be a yoga teacher to serve others, not to enrich yourself, and so there’s a huge amount of exploitation that goes on in this “spiritual” field. First, virtually every studio happily takes multiple thousands of dollars from teacher trainees, knowing most of them will never teach enough to make back what they’ve invested in the training. And second, the pay scales are super unfair to teachers, and you’re often required to teach for effectively less than minimum wage. (The main way this happens is that studios give free classes to people who volunteer at the front desk, take out trash, etc., and most often, the teacher then doesn’t get paid for that person. So essentially the teachers are subsidizing the volunteers and the studio pays nothing.) But, most yoga teachers really are in it to serve others, and so put up with a lot of this. (There’s also a ton of competition in most big cities, so you feel very replaceable.) Anyway, not to compare your field — which you worked and studied for years to qualify for — with a field that requires far less education, but the exploitation piece really rings that bell for me.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Wow, that is so interesting. And it’s totally relevant to what I wrote — I used academic examples since that’s what I know best but I also remember situations like this from my time in the arts and elsewhere. I had no idea that yoga studios operated that way; I assumed teachers were paid per class taught, not per student. Obviously a dumb assumption. I’d been thinking about looking into free classes in exchange for work but I think I won’t do that now. As for being in it to serve others, that’s exactly the thing. I’m totally ok with giving away labor directly to people who need it — so, say, teaching a yoga class for free at a community center or school. What I’m not ok with is when someone is making bank off your labor (the studio or whatever) and it’s not you. I’m kind of sorry this resonated so much with you, I guess, but I’m glad to have learned something about yogaeconomics (yoganomics?)

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