Be Like Lulu

She’s all over the internet these days: soft brown eyes, deep in thought, with beautiful, shiny black . . . fur. Lulu is a service dog from Susquehanna who was enrolled in the CIA’s “puppy class” to be trained for explosive detection and other K-9 tasks. She has been showing up all over the web during the last few days for having failed to make the grade in her training.

It seems that Lulu was showing signs that she just wasn’t interested in the work. She was easily distracted; even when her trainers provided more incentives (in the form of food or play), she just wasn’t enjoying herself. She wanted to sniff for rabbits, rather than bombs.  She wanted work that provided more contact with other dogs. In short, she just wasn’t cut out for the work that she was being trained to do.

Her experience has become a popular meme, and mainstream outlets are now picking up the story: the Washington Post, Fox News, NPR—everyone has an angle. On Friday, the story made the front page of the New York Times. In most of these stories, Lulu is described as having “dropped out” or “flunked out” or “washed out.” Some of the internet commentary has “politicized the issue,” accusing her of being a supporter of ISIS or a sign of the failures of the American educational system.

But in that front-page story in the Times, we were given a clue to the real story. Lulu didn’t fail, fall short, desert the cause, neglect her duty, or bite the dust. Instead she simply discovered that—in the thoughtfully-chosen words of Katie Rogers, the staff writer who reported the story— the work for which she was being trained “was not her calling.”

How many college students are facing the situation that Lulu faced in her training? For myriad reasons, they find themselves part-way into a program that doesn’t really interest them. They find the work to be too solitary (or too group-oriented); they think it takes too much mental energy (or not enough); they thought it would involve a lot of math and chemistry, but it ends up involving more writing and conversation. They desperately need to take some time for vocational reflection and discernment, so that they can step away from ill-suited work and find something that gives them joy and that the world needs right now.

But most of the time, they don’t. Perhaps their undergraduate program doesn’t provide them with enough time and space to think about such things. Maybe someone else in their lives (family member, childhood friend, former teacher) has set them on a particular path, and they feel that they would be doing a disservice in changing paths. Or perhaps inertia simply takes over; they’ve almost completed the major, they’ve taken the tests and applied for the licensure, and graduation is just around the corner.

But let’s imagine a more difficult case (and, I think, one that is all too common). What of the students who have discovered that they aren’t suited to the work? They’ve gone on that discernment retreat, they’ve prepared their speeches for parents or friends, they’ve mapped out different future paths that might only require one extra semester. But this good work may all come to nothing if the response to their decision is anything like some of the internet’s response to Lulu. If their decision is described by others as “washing out” or “floundering” or “not being able to handle it,” they may decide that the change of course isn’t worth the vitriol that they’ll have to endure to carry it through to its conclusion.

Lulu didn’t have to worry about that.  She can’t read the negative comments in the press or in the online comments. She doesn’t know that some people think she’s a spy or a layabout. But in any case, those people are wrong: if someone has truly discerned a new calling in life, this should never be seen as “failing to make the grade” or “going down the tubes.” Quite the opposite: by failing to undertake such vocational discernment, it will likely require some kind of genuine and dramatic failure to demonstrate one’s lack of fit for a particular field of study or line of work.

Unlike Lulu, our students can and do read and hear the things that are said about their decisions. Especially when they are in the midst of rethinking their calling, they are particularly vulnerable to critical commentary and hints of disapproval. They need people in their lives who know them well—people who can reassure them when the change that they are making is the right one. They need adults who can listen attentively to the story of a vocation found, and lost, and found again.

This helps to explain the success of undergraduate students who attend colleges that offer programs in vocational reflection and discernment. Such institutions provide them with the time and space to determine whether they have undertaken a course of study and preparation that suits their particular gifts and talents. These colleges have kept their student-faculty ratios, class sizes, and faculty expectations at a level that allows the kind of one-on-one interaction that students need when undertaking significant vocational discernment. Undergraduates in such programs are less likely to hear that their decisions to change majors or to change career trajectories labeled as a “breakdown” or an “implosion.”

Such students will be protected, to a certain extent, against the negative publicity they are likely to receive from people who don’t know them well enough to make such judgments. Their teachers and mentors will guide them through the process, reassuring them that vocational adjustments are common during the undergraduate years—and that, indeed, this is part of the entire purpose of college. Students will be reminded that they don’t need to spend their lives doing work that doesn’t suit them, work for which they don’t have the necessary aptitudes, work that they simply don’t like.

Yes, the world needs bomb-sniffing dogs. But apparently a lot of dogs like the work. So let’s let them do it—and let Lulu, and those like her, find her calling elsewhere. Because chances are high that the world also needs what she has to offer.


Doing my job and doing it right: Part 1

What if I told you that the greatest modern explicator of  “all things vocation” isn’t Frederick Buechner, Parker Palmer, or Wendell Berry… but is, in fact, Lin-Manuel Miranda?  “Of course!” you would say, because everyone (especially our editor, David Cunningham) knows there is a Hamilton lyric for everything.  If the shoe fits . . . wear it.

I’m sure that a great blog post is just waiting to be written, connecting the story of Alexander Hamilton—especially in Miranda’s retelling—to vocation. That may come later; meanwhile, two examples of Miranda’s earlier work are worth exploring.  My larger topic is professional formation — and how college faculty might use certain stories to begin conversations with students about what it means to be a professional. If I’m doing my job, and I’m doing right, what exactly am I doing? Continue reading

An historical digression on “what” and “how” in vocational discernment

In my last major post, I suggested that vocation can be understood as story — namely,

as a type of story that we tell ourselves and others—a story that gives meaning to our lives and structures how we understand who we are and what we do. It makes sense of lives as we look backward and it guides our aspirations and choices as we look to the future.

Storytelling Bench in Lanesboro, Minnesota, by Be Here Main Street (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Storytelling Bench in Lanesboro, Minnesota

Vocation, in this approach, is one of the West’s master plots for making sense of life. This master plot has changed over the centuries, and its key insight—that it is more important to discern how to live than what to do—may be in danger of being lost.

In its modern forms, the vocational story can be understood in purely secular terms;  but in its origin, it represented a revolutionary recasting of an old Christian notion. Continue reading

Vocation Requires Imagination

A key element in discerning one’s vocation is a robust yet realistic imagination.  Yet as a recent New York Times piece helpfully explains, we’re far better at thinking about the present than anticipating the future. In fact, we often fail to imagine those aspects of our future that will matter the most.

"Why Books are Always Better than Movies," By Massimo Barbieri (Own work)
“Why Books are Always Better than Movies,” By Massimo Barbieri (Own work)

Our lack of imagination can affect how we think about our future, with regard to a whole range of vocational issues.  And of course, the vocational concern that is most prominently in the mind of many undergraduate students is that of their future employment.  But do we really know how to imagine ourselves into that particular company, that institution, that agency, that job?  A key point from the article:

Unsurprisingly, we found that promotions and raises were important for people both in their current job and in applying for future jobs. What was interesting, though, was that the majority cared a lot about present benefits (such as doing something interesting with people they like) in their current job, but they expected not to care very much about those things in their future jobs. When envisioning themselves in the future, they predicted that they would almost solely be driven by delayed benefits like salaries.

Why are people fully aware that present benefits are important in their current job, and yet expect not to care about those benefits in the future? Why, for example, does a student who cannot sit through a boring two-hour lecture think she would be satisfied by a boring but well-paying job?

Take a look. The lessons may strike you as obvious, but if we fail to activate our imaginations in thinking about our futures, we can easily be misled in the process of vocational discernment.


Photo:  GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The Deepest Wells of Vocation

Christian Georg Schütz, Höfische Gesellschaft am Brunnen. Public domain.
Christian Georg Schütz, Höfische Gesellschaft am Brunnen (trimmed). Public domain.

Does your campus have a deep well?

No, I’m not talking about water or oil.

I mean the metaphorical deep wells of place and stories and values. When we think about vocation, these are among the most valuable resources we can bring to bear in our conversation with students.

Who dreamed your campus into being? Who were the founders? What values guided them to risk leaving one life behind and come build a new one on the very ground where you now walk?

I came to the campus where I have walked this fall as a total stranger. After spending Continue reading

Lost Causes

It’s difficult to think productively about the future when the world seems pitted against your very well-being and existence. That is how many of my students are feeling these days.

Obj. No. L.3.2010 Henry Mosler (American, 1841-1920) The Lost Cause, 1868 Oil on canvas 36"H x 48"W 91.44 cm x 121.92 cm Note: signed and dated lower right, Henry Mosler. / 1868. Image must be credited with the following collection and photo credit lines: Lent by the Johnson Collection. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Photo: Travis Fullerton© Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Henry Mosler (American, 1841-1920), The Lost Cause, 1868. Lent by the Johnson Collection. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.  Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Their hopelessness is earned, their despondency legitimate. It is not born of fragility or a lack of resiliency, as some pundits of higher education often want to suggest. My otherwise hard-working and motivated students are demoralized and exhausted.

And so are most of my colleagues at the small college where I teach — as are most of my friends who teach, in one capacity or another, spread all over the country. And so am I. Many of us trying to understand our own devotion to what seems, at least at the moment, to be a lost cause.

I have previously written about Continue reading

Is that vocation on your résumé?

Students at my university take a course in their final semester called “The Civil Engineering Profession.” Most of our time is spent reviewing requirements for professional licensure, along with different opportunities for employment in the public and private sector.  These are some of my favorite discussions to have with students; they represent one of the few spaces within the undergraduate engineering curriculum where students might imagine themselves in different roles while working for an incredibly varied array of potential employers.

The real ‘aha!’ moment for me occurred in an unexpected place. resume_review I was filling in for a colleague on sabbatical at the time, and the one class period that I was not looking forward to dealt with résumés.  It’s usually not a good sign when my very first act in preparing a new lecture for class involves a Google search! Fortunately, while browsing Purdue’s On-line Writing Lab (OWL), I discovered an excellent resource.  (The sheer volume of information was overwhelming; I realized that I might end up spending fifteen minutes discussing how to mix serif and sans-serif fonts…)

My previous experience reviewing resumes with students suggests that the hardest part for everyone is the statement of one’s objective — that is, what the résumé-writer is hoping will result from others’ encounters with the document. Consider this example  Continue reading