The Winding Road: Discerning Vocation Late in Life

Photo by the author.

I’ve been thinking recently about how many different points there are at which one pauses to consider what comes next and what one is called to do. Vocational discernment isn’t just for the young! We tend to focus on the paths students take through their undergraduate years as they weigh possibilities, confirm values, assess habits, commitments and preferences, and make choices about majors, graduate school and career. We seek to foster our students’ meaningful journey through college to successful engagement with the next steps in their journeys.

But this is not the end of the story, and it is good for our students to hear our stories, so that they can see beyond the first set of choices, beyond the first turns in the road. This essay is about the costs of choosing paths, of selecting one option over another, and thus also about the fact that opting for one’s most meaningful calling may come best after the midpoint in one’s career or even upon retirement.  Continue reading

The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. Continue reading

Local Heroes

When she was 16 years old, Deirdre Sullivan’s father insisted that she go to the funeral of her 5th grade math teacher. She complained and resisted, but her father was adamant. Always go to the funeral, he instructed her: “Do it for the family.”

Her father’s advice is the focus of Sullivan’s widely read “This I Believe” essay, part of the collection assembled by National Public Radio between 2005-2009 when it rebooted the 1950s series hosted by Edward R. Murrow. Hundreds of similar essays, written by famous artists, scientists, educators, athletes and politicians as well as by unknown people who responded to the invitation to compose an essay, can be accessed through the This I Believe website. It is a treasure trove for short readings that can be used to prompt discussion about life, meaning, and purpose. Asking students to write their own “This I Believe” essay (and then to share them aloud with their classmates) can be a very effective exercise. It’s especially powerful when the professor shares his or her own essay. Continue reading

Back to the Future II: Prioritizing “Becoming” Over “Being”

Is personality the key to vocation?

A number of years ago, I attended an advising presentation aimed at a group of students undecided with regard to their major. The presenter told the students a version of the following: You cannot change who you are because you are wired in certain ways, and discovering the ways you’re wired can help you choose the right major and set you on a successful career path. From there, the presenter made the students aware of the resources available to them at the institution, including career counselors and various personality and skill surveys. The presentation was well-intentioned, and some parts were even inspiring. Students who felt confused and anxious about their academic choices were encouraged by being told they had distinct skills and gifts that could provide direction, and that trained professionals were ready to help them in the discovery and planning processes.

Of course, we all want to encourage and guide students as they navigate vocational choices and opportunities. That is, after all, why NetVUE exists. But NetVUE challenges formulaic approaches and offers nuanced imagination for vocation as a journey more than a destination, as something formed rather than found, developed rather than discovered, discerned with mentors more than detected with surveys. These are important challenges and correctives.

Nevertheless, even in more nuanced presentations, there are times when one can detect some residual assumptions of the formulaic/discovery approaches. In other words, some of the language we use to describe and promote the organic processes of vocational discernment still draws on philosophical assumptions that inform and enframe formulaic approaches. That is not necessarily bad since assumptions and language can be employed in different ways. But I find it helpful to bring the issues to the surface and engage them directly. This post is my attempt to do that by briefly contrasting the philosophical outlooks of Plato and Aristotle and their implications for vocational discourse. Continue reading

Vocation and Civility

Current Issue (Volume 48) 2018

How do I figure out what I’m called to do in life? This is a question that many of our students face, and if we’re honest, it’s one that we ourselves sometimes wonder about.

Lynn Hunnicutt, professor of economics at Pacific Lutheran University, founding director of PLU’s Wild Hope Center for Vocation and currently Assistant Director for NetVUE, shares some of her personal and professional insights about this question in a new essay published in Intersections. Continue reading

Vocation in a Global Frame: Four Considerations

Our students will likely live and work in a world even more interconnected and interdependent than we do now. The complex issues that face us spill across national borders, oceans and continents, involve communities with varying histories, cultures, beliefs, languages, political structures and forms of creative expression. These complex global issues and this interconnectedness shape the work-world our students enter. Students seek to discern vocation, not just once, but again and yet again, within this context.

How does globalization impact vocation?

We deepen and enrich our students’ understanding of vocational discernment, and we better understand it ourselves, when we situate the practice of reflection, anticipation and choice of life path within this global frame, when we consider how best to mentor students who are not privileged in their citizenship, circumstances and freedom or range of choice

Here are four components of the intersection of vocational discernment and globalization that seem pressing to me. These are not the only components, and readers are likely to identify additional significant, complex global issues affecting the work world our students enter. We live in a dynamic, constantly changing, highly interdependent world: by calling out these four major intersections of vocational discernment and globalization my hope is to initiate an open-ended conversation, to encourage reflection and dialogue. Continue reading

The problem with “you can do anything you want!”

In this week’s Chronicle, Scott Carlson wonders about the value of telling graduates that “they can do anything with their degree.” He relays the story of “Mike,” a college graduate he met who now works at a local grocery store and who remains unsure about his future. Mike is committed to environmentalism and sustainability, loves reading and  appreciates how his liberal arts education challenged him to think about “deep questions.”

But Mike now feels lost, and questions the preparation offered by his alma mater:

“That college is supposed to be ‘the best four years of your life’ weighed on me,” he says. “It’s like a country club there. The lawn is mowed every day. There’s no trash. That’s evidence of how far it is from reality.”

Continue reading