When I was growing up, vocation meant one thing and one thing only. It meant religious vocation to become a nun, a priest, or a brother. We were supposed to pray for a vocation, but after a certain age – let’s say, about 9 or 10 – most of my friends were praying to not have a vocation.
Once you got over your romantic Bells of St. Mary’s notion about how swell it would be to be a gorgeous nun like Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and have a swell, fun, crooning priest like Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) fall head over heels for you in a chaste, nunny-priesty kind of way, vocation was, well, ugh. Just ugh.
Who wanted to go away, shave your head, wear funny clothing, pray all the time, and have no TV, Friendly’s Awful Awfuls, transistor radios, contact with your families, or boy friends (which, as long as you weren’t in the convent, were at least a possibility?
I won’t say no one.
Two girls in my high school class entered the convent. One of them didn’t stay in all that long, but the other is still at it, doing wonderful, life- (and, I guess, vocation-) affirming work with refugees. She entered in a changing era, and I don’t think she ever had to shave her head.
Anyway, that’s what vocation meant if you were a Catholic kid growing up in the fifties or sixties.
For most of us, it was something to be feared.
It was especially creepy when the nuns used to smile knowingly at girls they thought might be susceptible to their wily ways, and say “it’s the ones you least suspect…” More creepily, I spent a week during my senior year in high school at what was nominally a gathering of student council officers from high schools run by “our” order of nuns. II realized later that a purpose (or at least a sub-purpose) was to expose us to the joys and wonders of the novitiate, where gathering was held, and where we got to do things like play volleyball and eat ice cream with the postulants who were about to become novices. And ask the hovering professed nuns any questions we had about what it was like to “go in.”
So vocation is not a word I’d ever use with respect to career.
But The New York Times has no such qualms, and they have a regular column entitled Vocations. The other day, the vocation was happiness engineer, which sounds just about as far away as nun or priest as it can be.
The happiness engineer profiled is Tyler Williams, who is the head of experiential marketing at Zappo’s. Even after all these decades in marketing, I have scant idea what experiential marketing means. But, in the world of Zappos, Tyler is called a fun-gineer. In Tyler’s words:
My job is to bring joy and smiles to Zappos’s 1,500 employees. (Without the hyphen, by the way, I’d be a technician of fungi.) For example, I built an instant dance party in the company lobby. It works like this: When you push a button with a sign under it that says, “Don’t ever push this button,” lights go on and music blares. (Source: NY Times)
I can honestly say that I never worked at a company where it was anyone’s job to bring joy and smiles to its employees. Further, I’ll hazard a guess that my sister Kath, who sent me the link to this article, never worked anyplace that had such a position either. I suspect that the closest either of us came to “an instant dance party in the company lobby” was a fire drill. Of course, Kath worked in jobs – grammar school teacher, then operations manager in financial services – where none of this nonsense was going to happen. But even my career in hip and happen’ high tech, where morale attempts included stuff like:
- Video games in the kitchen
- Friday beer parties
- Having the execs come around pushing ice cream carts
- Having the execs dish out bad turkey dinners while wearing Santa caps
No one really gave much of a hoot about bringing joy and smiles to the employees.
But Zappos is a different sort of animal to begin with, and companies that are stacked with millennials (such as Zappos) tend to do more to entertain their workforce. For Tyler, that means a position that:
…comes within our brand aura department, which is similar to other companies’ brand marketing departments.
Brand marketing, I get. Or think I get. Or used to get. That retreat for the student council officers? Brand marketing for an order of nuns! (One thing I know, if there’d been a “don’t ever push this button”, I’d have been sorely tempted to push it.) But brand aura? Saints have auras, no? Isn’t it something like a halo? But brands?
Anyway, Tyler started out in customer service, which is at the heart of the Zappos brand aura. (And, yes, I’m a Zappos devotee.) Pretty much everyone, including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, works the lines at one point or another.
Customer service is actually an excellent way to understand what your customers go through. I worked for one small software company where we had to take turns manning the customer support line. It was eye-opening. (While I was in college, I also worked in the complaint department at Sears, but that’s another story entirely…)
From customer service, Tyler got his big break. An A/V club kind of guy, he got the chance to set up the video show for a speech Hsieh was giving. Based on his performance, the head of HR asked Tyler to write his own job description.
Which turned out to be fun-gineer.
Still doesn’t sound much like a vocation to me, but that’s probably a reflection of my warped childhood.