Plurality of Vocations: Finding seasons rather than singularity

One of my favorite moments from the movies I used to watch as a kid comes from Billy Crystal’s 1991 film, City Slickers. The moment I’m referring to is memorable and many will know it.  Crystal’s character, Mitch, is on a mid-life crisis-abating trip with childhood friends to a western ranch in order to help drive the cattle across the land. The lead cowboy on the expedition, Curly, played by Jack Palance, is riding solo with Mitch and they start talking about love and the meaning of life.  Curly holds up one leather-gloved finger and says, the meaning of life is “one thing, just one thing.”  Leaning into the TV as a kid, I remember nodding along with Billy Crystal as he asked, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” Curley replies, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”  It’s a compelling scene, and is likely in part responsible for Palance’s Oscar for this film. The idea that there is “one thing” — singular narrative — is often utilized in conversations about vocation.  I’ve subscribed to it.  Yet, recently I have been wondering if vocation in the singular is deeply misguiding. 

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Optimism vs. Hope – and Other Differences that Matter

I remember reading a long time ago that there were fifty different words in Eskimo languages for snow. I tried to imagine how to tease out nuances in texture, timing or other qualities that would be of significance. But I realized that the words were linked to Inuit cultural experience, and I came up short.

This exercise came to mind recently, after someone asked me if I was optimistic about the resiliency of American democracy amidst the current tidal wave of polarization and disruption.  “No,” I replied, “but I am hopeful.” That set me to pondering the differences between pairs of related words. The distinctions I make are surely idiosyncratic as well as culturally bound, but some seem important.

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For Young Women Who Have Considered Their Becoming

Early in her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares questions that she had asked herself in a journal she kept throughout her twenties. After working hard and dutifully climbing an educational and professional ladder through Princeton and into a leadership role at a highly regarded Chicago law firm, she realized: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”

Michelle Robinson as a student at Princeton University.
From the Obama-Robinson family archives. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/06/books/review/michelle-obama-becoming-memoir.html

At the same time, she was newly in love with a man whose personality became a powerful presence in her life:

“I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. … I wasn’t going to get out of its path – I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love – but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.”

Enter the journaled reflections of a twenty-something Michelle Robinson:

“One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself.”

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Making hard choices: the importance of deciding, not deferring

One of the most interesting parts of working with college students is the palpable potential of a future unknown. Anticipation of what is still to come is often innate in many students seeking their liberal arts and professional degrees.  With that can come a great deal of uncertainty, but also there are wonderful opportunities to use decisions for the realization of that unknown future. Yet, I have noticed sometimes students seek a “solution” to hard decisions by finding a way to say yes to everything. They defer decision-making for as long as they can. And I have noticed that my own skepticism regarding this tendency to try to “do it all” has become stronger over the years, leading me to wonder if I should take a more firm stance, pushing them to make the hard choices.   

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The Change a Difference Makes

Do you remember the Sesame Street tune, “One of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong…”? There would be some collection of objects displayed on the television screen—say a variety of fruits and a glass of milk—and children would intuit the unnamed category. This is how we learn; we make meaning by understanding difference. When we move from grouping foods or shapes to thinking about human beings, however, the phrase “one of these things does not belong” becomes problematic. Why do our brains see people who are different from us as if they don’t belong?

[Click here for the history and variations of this song from Sesame Street].

What if we were asked instead to examine a range of wildly different objects, and discern what binds them together, or imagine how they might be utilized creatively so that their cumulative capacities could accomplish something grand?

None of these things is quite like the other

Yet each of these things surely does belong

Can you figure out how they might work together

By the time I finish my song?

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Please steal this assignment.

As I discussed in a previous post, while we rarely use the word “vocation” among our students at Blackburn, vocation nevertheless stands as a General Education Program Student Learning Outcome. Each semester, I teach two courses that fit within this outcome, and I love it. I constantly tinker with the content of these classes to try to find one more reading, one more tool, or one more high impact moment to reach students and help them more deeply engage in the mystery of their personal calling. In this post, I want to share my very best assignment, the one that has proven to prompt the most growth for the most students the most quickly. I share it here for two reasons. First, I encourage you to steal it and use it with your students if you think it could work for you as well as it has for me. Second, I want to explain it as an exercise in stating some of the reasons I believe it has been so effective.  Continue reading

“Learning to Do it Well:” Life, Love and Work in Middlemarch

Middlemarch was published serially over twelve months from 1871-1872

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was published nearly 150 years ago, in 8 installments from December 1871 to December 1872. Victorian readers would have had plenty of time to speculate on the characters’ decisions and lives as they awaited the next chapters to be published.  Waiting, you see, was part of serialized reading.

Taking a year to read a novel is an elusive experience for contemporary life centered on binge watching serial television or listening to episodic podcasts.  Immersion has its place, certainly, in a world that is fragmented and demanding, but reading over a period of time affords insight and transformation that compressed immersion does not.

“What is the quality of your waiting?” I once heard a spiritual leader ask.  Academic calendars don’t encourage waiting but our vocational discernment clocks, which should be set for a longer, more deliberate reflection, can. The quality of our waiting can allow us to respond with purpose.

Middlemarch is a novel about vocation—some might even argue, the novel about vocation. It portrays life slowly unfolding before us. Many have seen the novel as a guide to deliberating a professional path, to navigating adulthood, to choosing a marriage partner, to surviving small-town life. More broadly, a recent BBC poll ranked Middlemarch as the greatest British novelContinue reading