Years ago, in a series of wildly popular interviews, historian Joseph Campbell uttered these words: “Follow your bliss.” But never in his wildest dreams did he imagine what would become of them.
In the years since, this little piece of advice—dropped into a serious conversation with journalist Bill Moyers—has taken social media and advertising by storm. It shows up on t-shirts and self-help books, promising that all you must do to figure out your complicated life is to pursue what you’re passionate about. Although helpful for all of us who have repressed our own desires, the idea crept unbidden into discussions about calling. It permeated conversations with high school students and college freshmen as they struggled to determine next steps, majors and minors, academic degrees or jobs; and it colored the worlds of unhappy mid-lifers and senior citizens phasing into the unknowns of retirement. In a word, it took over messaging about life satisfaction and human fulfillment. Just figure out what you want. It’s that simple. Or so the nagging imperative promised.
It’s time to dispel this myth. I can hardly think of worse advice to give anyone trying to discern what to do with their life. Instead, we need to tell the truth. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Follow Your Bliss and Other Lies About Calling, following a calling comes inevitably with undersides—struggles and complications that we can never fully anticipate and for which we need to be aware and prepared. Calling is, to borrow the words of researchers Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery Thompson, a “double-edged sword.” It “cuts both ways.”
In exploring paid work as a calling, Bunderson and Thompson wanted to know why people persevere in undesirable jobs and decided zookeepers would make an ideal population to study. They are often highly educated and intensely committed but poorly paid with little opportunity for advancement. Their work requires unglamorous, unappealing duties like cleaning up feces, scrubbing cages, managing food regiments, and grooming. So, Bunderson and Thompson wondered, why do they stick with their work? What can be learned from talking with them about work as a calling more generally?
Here’s what they discovered: When zookeepers are asked why they do what they do, they seldom talk about following their bliss, although they do express deep love for and desire to be with animals. Instead, they use words like duty, obligation, and responsibility, which are reminiscent of classical views of calling from the sixteenth century. “This neoclassical version of calling is a painfully double-edged sword—a source of transcendent meaning, identity, and significance as well as unbending duty, sacrifice, and vigilance,” they write. In short, deeply meaningful callings are also painful.
Unfortunately, when we use the word calling, we often have glorified or idealized visions in mind. In fact, it’s almost impossible to use the word without exaggerating its incredible potential. Why is this? Because calling has unavoidably sanctified connotations. In one way, calling is just another word for life and how we live our lives. Except—and here’s where it gets tricky—the word carries with it an inevitable and important sacredness, as something ordained or special that we and only we are meant to do, or something we’re divinely given and compelled to follow. It is this heightened spiritual meaning that often renders the word a freighted concept that hangs over us and weighs us down, leading us to think we can (or must) find the perfectly fitting job, the one-and-only special life partner, the ideally balanced life, the one-time summons from God. But if there’s only one message to take away from this piece and from my book, let it be that these kinds of expectations are lies that distort and diminish life’s fuller, richer realities.
If you ask people to talk about their experiences of calling, you will hear these truths: how failure arises despite our best intentions; how family expectations and duties restrain and limit our decisions; how social and political realities and dead ends subvert and destroy our dreams; and how undesired, unexpected responsibilities land in our laps, demands that we don’t want but have become part of our life calling anyway. Most important, callings centered purely on following our bliss seldom satisfy, but callings that serve others almost always come with a price—“money, time, physical comfort or well-being,” in Bunderson and Thompson’s words, but also challenging consequences that they don’t name like loss, regret, frustration, and failure. In other words, following a calling has benefits and burdens. Callings are “ennobling” and “binding.”
Instinctively and commendably, we seek to avoid suffering, and we aspire to assuage the suffering of those closest to us. But when it comes to calling, it’s best to accept and embrace the dilemmas, helping each other into and through them. Glibly optimistic accounts of calling make it difficult to develop the dispositions and strengths necessary to living a meaningful life, according to religion professor Jason Mahn. Indeed, a “life of integrity and purpose,” he says, “is more likely to occasion [. . .] and even be accompanied by existential suffering” than to skirt it.
Tired of the popularized misuse of the imperative follow your bliss for purely hedonistic purposes, Campbell is rumored to have finally declared, “I wish I’d said, ‘follow your blisters.’” This certainly fit his own theories about the “hero’s journey.” When he developed his idea of the hero as a universal, mythical motif across societies, he envisioned someone who passes through all sorts of adversities in the fight against evil and the pursuit of eternal truths. Think Star Wars’s Luke Skywalker, whom George Lucas says he modeled after Campbell’s theory. The fourth Public Broadcasting episode of the Moyers-Campbell conversations is actually titled, “Sacrifice and Bliss.”
Fortunately, I’m not alone in doubting the pursuit of bliss as a “rule of life” or a guide to calling. If you google “follow your bliss,” you’ll get over 87 million hits. But if you search “follow your blisters,” you’ll find at least 12 million citations. If we’re honest when we talk about our callings, then we’ll tell people as much about our blisters as our bliss.
Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore has had multiple and sometimes conflicting callings, including her appointment as E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture, now Emerita, at Vanderbilt University. Teaching afforded her the wonderful opportunity to hear people’s struggles over their callings and to explore callings across the life course, including among children and mothers. Her publications include Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma (Abingdon), Let the Children Come: Reimaging Childhood from a Christian Perspective (Jossey-Bass), and In the Midst of Chaos: Care of Children as Spiritual Practice (Jossey-Bass). Her forthcoming book, Follow Your Bliss and Other Lies about Calling (Oxford), identifies the distortions and challenges surrounding calling.