Starting from nothing

In the work of helping students discern their vocation, I have found myself thwarted by a certain type. Tell me whether he sounds familiar to you.

dataspel_1Jeff has glided through life, keeping himself busy with schoolwork and perhaps a few extra-curricular activities, but has nothing that provides him with a sense of accomplishment or connection to others. He has invested a great deal of his time over the years to entertaining himself, playing video games, surfing the web, and binge-watching television shows. When I press Jeff about what is important to him, in an effort to try to get a sense of his underlying commitments, it can begin to seem as though nothing is there. Jeff is not depressed, and in fact he seems quite happy to move into his future continuing to fill his days with entertainment.

What does vocational discernment look like when you are seemingly “starting from nothing”?

My usual approach begins with an exploration of my students’ fundamental commitments — getting underneath their interests and aptitudes in order to get a sense of what makes them tick. For many of my students, their sense of purpose is wrapped up with their identity, especially if they are part of a minoritized group. They feel a strong sense of obligation to use their talents to contribute to their community, in whatever way they may understand that. Other students have a sense of mission and drive oriented towards particular kinds of work; their passions are ignited by a sense of task. Still others believe that God is calling them to a particular role, and the pull of the calling propels them forward. And so, over the years, I have developed a set of questions meant to get at that underlying sense of mission, in order to help them brainstorm about its larger significance and potential next steps.

Living in an alternate universe

But these questions don’t work with Jeff. Jeff lives in an alternative universe, a virtual world that is reliably stimulating. In response to my questions, meant to prompt a nascent sense of calling, Jeff asks me, with sincere bewilderment, “Why should I care about those things when I’m quite happy filling my time having fun?” Like the character Cypher, he prefers to live in “the Matrix.”

I’m tempted to joke, “because eventually your parents are going to kick you out of the house.” Alternatively, I could suggest that he read the popular book by Meg Jay about the 20s being the “Defining Decade,” with the implied threat that if he doesn’t start taking his life seriously now, he will be doomed to a life that will be professionally and personally unsatisfying.

But I don’t feel good about leaving the matter there. I want a better answer for Jeff, something less instrumental, and more substantive. In order for Jeff to even begin a process of vocational discernment, I have to help him figure out a way to engage with the world around him, to see it as more than just for his entertainment. And I hope that Jeff might begin to think of his own life as connected to others — that he is part of something larger than himself.

Finding a way forward

Taking a cue from Aristotle, I suggest to Jeff that he consider different types of pleasure and that a deeper, more sustained form of happiness than merely being entertained might be a possibility for him.aristotle_bust_white_background_transparent

I ask him to describe what he wants his life to be like ten years from now  does he want to be married? Have children? Be involved with his community? To have meaningful work? To still be connected in some way to his family? Jeff does indeed desire such things for himself but seems to think that they will happen automatically, without intentional action or effort on his part. It’s not apathy so much as a lack of imagination about the possibilities of his life that seems to keep Jeff in the state that he’s in.

Further conversation reveals that Jeff was never affirmed as a child for his talents or interests. Neither an athlete nor a math-and-science whiz, Jeff retreated into his video games — a world peopled by various characters and filled with challenging tasks where he was rewarded for his abilities. Socially awkward and of slight build, Jeff was also mildly bullied when he was in school. A vague suspicion and even fear seems to undergird his hesitancy about joining “this world.” Jeff is bright, gregarious, and a quick learner; yet he remains unconvinced that a more satisfying realm exists beyond the one he has constructed for himself through his electronic pastimes.


I’ve only scratched the surface in my attempt to reach Jeff; I continue to feel stumped by the challenges facing him (and students like him). Eventually I hope to be able to offer more insights into the challenge that Jeff poses to those of us committed to mentoring undergraduates into a greater sense of meaning and purpose. For now, I sense that Jeff simply needs a regular conversation partner — someone to walk alongside him for a time. Perhaps my continued interest, conveyed through gentle but persistent questions and concern, will at some point spark in him a greater sense of engagement with his own life and future.

Photo credits

Johannes Jansson/ [CC BY 2.5 dk (], via Wikimedia Commons

By jlorenz1 [CC BY 2.5,

One thought on “Starting from nothing

  1. Hannah, your creative and compassionate attention to your student moves me. I see so much evidence of deep listening and seeing in your essay.

    Entertainment as competition for the work of vocational discernment has always been with us, but technology has multiplied the effects and the volume of time students spend in alternate worlds.

    I wonder what Jeff would think of Mark Edwards’ essay which precedes yours in this space? Videogames actually teach narrative structure so well that Jeff might have something to contribute from “virtual reality” into a real conversation about vocation with peers in community. Can he see this conversation another form of story telling? Perhaps what drew him to video games in the first place may hold the key to what can draw him out.

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