Rethinking Productivity and Vocation


I am certainly a sucker for productivity blogs, podcasts, and books. I’m sure it feeds into all kinds of aspects of my identity and anxieties, not to mention being a 3 on the Enneagram. While I think that it can be good to set goals and be organized enough to get the key things done you are responsible for, I see the underside of this tendency as well, which can be very much about feeling inadequate, like a failure or that you never measure up. When a life is shaped primarily by what it can produce, then it is bound to get caught in a cycle of scarcity. Inasmuch as productivity is primarily about achieving something outside myself, something I don’t yet have, then getting the carrot at the end of the stick will never be enough.

Instead, how can I begin with my identity, my true self and I am in God outside of how I am shaped by capitalist desires. Thus, I have wondered if, in late capitalism, where it seems like everything is built around personal brands, entrepreneurship, and an achievement mentality, there is any alternative way of thinking about productivity as the highest goal?

If so, this is not so much what I want, but certainly what I need.

Then recently, I ran into some old writings of Parker Palmer’s, while searching for something that opened up to me in a new way. I’ve read “Let Your Life Speak” before, but I have heard people say to me that unless you are ready for it the book can often go over your head. That was definitely me the first time through. I am not even sure I ever finished reading it. But years, jobs and children later, maybe I am more ready to hear what it has to say because when I came across these two quotes they struck me as a possible anecdote to this highly productive, achiever-oriented culture that leaves so many in the dust.

Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live — but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.

Palmer is making a very precise cut between the giftings, proclivities, passions and leadings of what some Quakers call the “Inward Teacher” and the very basic ego that drives us. My ego is quick to take the bait and go after the carrot on the stick, my ego loves the external motivations and rewards. On the other hand, the still, quiet voice that comes from deep within needs space and generosity and openness to be heard, two things that I struggle to create in my own life.

What if instead, we based all of our systems for “getting things done,” productivity hacks and tutorials, and our courses on learning to how to focus, less on our ability to achieve and more our ability to listening inwardly? More on our ability to listen outwardly to the world? And on our ability learn how to match and line these up in a way that has integrity?

I am not suggesting this is easy and I can see how any robust conversation on such a move must take into account different identities and privileges, but I think this approach could lead to a more authentic, more subjective way of thinking about vocation and passion than all the productivity hacks in all of the world.

Productivity may be about how good my goals are for the year; how well I am at tracking and staying on top of each goal; how disciplined I can be; and how I am able to make space to do what “I really want” (all of which often, requires an assumed amount of privilege that often goes unnoticed or checked). In response to this, I think that Palmer is laying out a plausible alternative. And a way of thinking about this that isn’t anti-productivity, but offers a starting point that begins truly with where you and I are, what we each have to work with, and how we may begin to think about “vocation.”

I wonder how this shift towards a practice of listening that leads towards vocation and production could create more healthy leadership, healthier relationships, healthier systems within which we work and live.

Palmer writes:

If the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, as I believe it does, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves — violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth. Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about — quite apart from what I would like it to be about — or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.


  • Would a shift in starting point from production to listening make any difference in your life as you consider how you approach your work, goals, and how you spend your time?
  • How might it begin to shift your understanding of who you are in relationship to what you do?

Flickr Credit: Alan O’Rourke