Vocational Image: Inner Identity and Outward Expression

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education touched on a point that has lurked in the back of my mind for some time. The author, Allison Vaillancourt, considered the roles of charm, sparkle, magnetism, energy, and charisma in assessing job candidates. Vaillancourt points to the fact that confidence is valued over competence when interviewers evaluate new candidates for a career.

A career is not a vocation, but there can be little doubt that one’s image and outward self-expression play a key role in whether a person is considered a good fit, or has the right temperament, for a line of work. Charisma and sparkle in one candidate may get the nod for a job, or access to an important opportunity, when another person is actually better suited for it vocationally.

How do we maximize the consistency between our inner identity and its outward expression? How do we talk about this with our students? If landing in the desired place depends on other people’s impressions of our deepest vocational desires, how do we make the “right” impression while also being true to our inner self? How do we help students navigate this minefield of image and authenticity?  

One solution might be presentation. We can help students work on their attire, oral presentation, and physical presence. Presentation extends to making sure our students have presentable resumes and/or curriculum vitae. We might also work with them on having the right connections and references for any given situation. One reason fraternities and sororities find some success with students is that they address image. Peers provide advice on attire, image, personal attributes, and identity. After the Greek system, students who take marketing and communications courses likely deal with image in substantive ways.

On the topics of image projection and vocation, however, my sense is that we staff and faculty in higher education do little to nothing. We very likely, as Vaillancourt suggests, simply absorb student projections of charisma and feel their magnetism. We do not guide them on issues of image and vocation. Faculty indoctrinate (or acculturate) students into the norms of their professions, and other advisors might teach “professional” dress norms. This is well and good, but does nothing to help with problems of alignment. What if your personae, no matter your dress and manners, is not within the norms of a vocation? What if that vocation rejects you on appearances and personality? What do we, as mentors, know about issues of difference, diversity, and pluralism in various vocations?

It’s sad to think that mere presentational values matter the most. Despite years of experience as a mentor, staffer, and faculty member, it is still dispiriting to acknowledge that a bright smile, over-confidence, and a dash of humor might be more valuable than sincerity, commitment, and vocational drive. Vaillancourt reflects upon this:

Over the course of my career, I have come to understand that many of the characteristics that make candidates appealing in the hiring process are often the same attributes that lead me to eventually be disappointed in their performance on the job. It’s all too easy to gloss over the absence of substance when entranced by style.

Allison Vaillancourt

She goes on to suggest that, “given that the challenges facing higher education… it is time to think critically about the kind of people who are best positioned to help us navigate a very uncertain future. We need more community building and less star power.”

On the difficulty of lining these things up, I confess that I have, personally, never been good at it. By this I mean that I never consciously tried. When it came to image and my deepest commitments—whether related to my religion (Evangelicalism and then Catholicism), politics (confused, for most of my life, and now socialism), vocation (environmental issues, then history, philosophy, and student services)—I could never decide on an image. Instead I settled on candidness and authenticity as overcoming presentational weaknesses. But those choices didn’t always work out.

When it came to clothes, I defaulted to an essential blandness: khaki pants, solid oxford shirts (or solid t-shirts), and some dark colored work shoes (or sandals). Boring. In terms of a style of dialogue and conversation, I adopted thin and thick forms of interrogative. I was terrible at small talk because I was too serious—always wanting to get to the “things that matter.” And I had an intense desire for consistency, which read, or spoke, to me as authenticity.

The author (Tim Lacy)

What won out over time was simply adaptation. My graduate work in history, performed over nine years (with breaks) produced a vocational image by osmosis. I created a self-projection and image that lined up with “instructor” or “professor.” The inner person matched the outer. But again, that took years. The process was more incremental and unconscious than deliberate. It was not timely in the way that we would want it to be for young undergraduates fighting for a chance at vocational authenticity.

I think our students share that idealistic desire for some authenticity and consistency. They want both individuality and fraternal conformity. As such, and as higher education professionals who advise and mentor students on careers and vocations, however, we should be able to speak to the desire to “line up” inner identities and outward expressions of the same.

How do you talk about this gap with students? Are we more or less successful when we advise around these questions of identity and expression? Are the problems unsolvable?

Tim Lacy is a student services professional and historian. He currently works for the University of Illinois as the Director of the Office of Medical Student Learning Environment, and teaches history courses at Loyola University Chicago. He has worked in student services for most of his career, assisting students with their academic, personal, and career aspirations, including when plans go awry. He is the author of The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), as well as several contributions to edited collections and academic journals. 

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