Happiness and fulfillment

Reading applications for prestigious scholarships gives the author hope but also raises some questions about how we understand a “meaningful and fulfilling life.”

In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.

And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.

Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?

It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

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Stories for the Undecided

Some lucky students enter college knowing exactly what they want to do and go on to pursue a career that feels like a calling.  But many enter with several possibilities or only vague notions.  To encourage students to examine their choices, my college lists all entering students as “Undecided.”  However, for understandable reasons, being undecided is profoundly stressful for many students, especially if their initial choices have led to failure and they are still trying to decide on a major late in their sophomore year and even more so, if they are approaching graduation with no clear career direction.  Higher education is expensive and to many Americans occupation “counts” so students want to make the right choice. 

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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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