Ribs and Lungs: What I’ve Learned about Vocation from Young Professionals of Color

Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This post is part of a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.

In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tells a story about his med-school days when he first tried to read an X-ray image.

At first, he says, he couldn’t see anything but the ribs. In desperation, he sidled up to some seasoned doctors and eavesdropped on their analysis. Oscillating between what they were saying and what they were seeing, Polanyi gradually stopped looking at the ribs and started seeing the lungs.

If you work as I do in a college community, you know the challenges of helping students see the lungs in the life of learning. Think of the ribs as the deadlines on the syllabus, the grade point averages at midterms, the multiple-choice questions on the final exam. The lungs are all the things that make you want to study something in the first place, all the insights and frameworks that enable laughter in the classroom and the smart hubbub of collaborative conversation.

I caught clearer sight of this challenge in a recent interview with Christian Perry, a rising political operative in south and west Chicago. As a Deputy Director for an Illinois gubernatorial campaign, he works hard to keep track of the breathing-in and breathing-out of political work.

He told me a story about an event hosted by a lower-level politician, an event where Christian’s candidate had asked to make an appearance. If you’re a district-level operator, it’s a big deal to have a big-time politician like J. B. Pritzker come to your event. It’s also disruptive. So Christian was going early to make sure that things went right. At a stoplight, he picked up his phone and saw some of his colleagues had snarled things up. They’d gotten bossy, telling the lower-level politician just what they needed. But they were forgetting how much grace the politician was showing to them by allowing them to come in the first place. Christian called his coworkers and told them to back off, to let things breathe. They were obsessing on the logistics. They could see the ribs; they’d lost sight of the lungs.

The same thing can happen when my students ask questions about semesterly logistics—about deadlines and parameters and percentages—I find myself coaching them towards Christian’s attentiveness for what makes work live and breathe.

Sometimes, of course, I have students with the opposite problem: they can’t see the ribs, either. You know the type: a vital contributor to every classroom conversation, someone who clearly takes joy in the field of study. This student can write 600 words on any essay question. But he can’t submit a ten-point reading-response assignment to save his ever-loving soul.

That makes me think of Dyvon Melling, another of my interview participants. Years ago, he tended to be that kind of student in my classroom—good on tests, neglectful of the smaller, more formative assignments. Now, though, he’s managing a team for a shadow startup called CloudKitchens, and he’s had to become more attentive to the formative dynamics of management. Even if you’re unfamiliar with ghost kitchens, you may still know Dyvon’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, a wickedly successful entrepreneur who used to head Uber till he faced allegations of sexual harassment. Working for a not-very-great human like Kalanick has, I think, committed Dyvon to utter clarity with his team. His leadership style, he says, is completely candid. Unlike his boss, Dyvon always wants his team to know exactly where the ribs are.

Christian and Dyvon have helped me see the utter vitality of both the ribs and the lungs of vocational life. This might be a good time to mention that both of these rising leaders are Black. During our interviews, they made clear how racial consciousness has shaped their vocations. That sort of reflection has come to shape my own sense of where the ribs and lungs are in the classroom.

A quick parable might show what I mean. A few years ago, I was at a social impact investment conference in San Francisco, talking with a man from Indianapolis, DeAmon Harges. His business card described him as a Roving Listener. (Yes, it was a paid position. No, there are no openings for this job on LinkedIn.) He would go around with a small crew of technicians and sit on people’s front porches in west Indianapolis. He would turn on a digital recorder and ask unconventional questions like “Tell me about the conditions of your birth,” or “Tell me a story about a time when you gave something without expectation of return.” He told me that he learned that, in predominantly Black neighborhoods in west Indianapolis, there were millions of dollars on the move.

The first time I heard about such shadow economies, I was incredulous. I’ve been to DeAmon’s low-income neighborhood: how can there be millions of dollars moving here?

But the longer I spend with listening to the stories of early-career professionals, many of them people of color, the more I see my skepticism about hidden resources as a species of racism. My white-guy obliviousness sometimes makes me—perhaps even more than my students—miss the lungs and the ribs alike.

I feel this especially when I inwardly condemn a student for looking uninterested in class. Feeling irked or discouraged about perceived apathy, I have to recall my own surprise at DeAmon’s stories about gifts in his community. I have to remind myself that I can’t always and immediately read the cues of students with skin colors and economic backgrounds different from my own. Ribs and lungs seem easy to see; they’re right there on the x-ray image your grad school supposedly taught you to scan. But sometimes, a slow-down conversation with young professionals like Dyvon and Christian makes clear just how much of a shadow economy God’s kingdom can be, whether in the classroom or in the communities beyond.

For more posts that consider vocation in terms of diversity and social justice please refer to this curated list.


Craig Mattson teaches and researches communication at Trinity Christian College in a south suburb of Chicago. He’s the author of two books, Rethinking Communication in Social Business and Why Spiritual Capital Matters. To follow his research on early-career professionals and how they deal with overwhelm, subscribe to The ModeSwitch.substack.com. For other posts by Craig, click here.

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