Telling our Future Stories: Hope, Loss, and Possibility

Recently I found myself in a first-year seminar college classroom conducting an interview with the students’ professor. The class was arranged so the students made a horseshoe facing their professor, who was seated in a chair with her back to the whiteboard. I posed several questions designed to tease out the vocational narrative of the professor and simultaneously charted on the board the key ideas, concepts, moments, people, and influences she mentioned. The exercise is designed to provide an example of a vocational narrative to students and to visually represent active listening on the board. As the professor turned in her chair at the end of the interview to digest what the whiteboard displayed, I noticed for myself that as a result of my questions the entire board dealt with her past. Narrative is arguably the foundation of vocational reflection. Yet, does narrative draw our attention too strongly to the past? What opportunities for vocational reflection could occur by telling our future stories?

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“For Such a Time as This” – with Apologies to Esther

1945 Purim greeting (postcard) from the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art, University of California, Berkeley; reproduced at https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-purim/

Purim is coming soon, beginning on the evening of March 20th this year. That’s the Jewish holiday when we read the Scroll (aka Book) of Esther, which itself describes some of the traditions—days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor (9:22). But most Purim customs come from the tone of the book, a kind of burlesque with reversals, exaggerations, bawdy humor and caricatures. So we dress up in costumes, spin satires, and (as adults) drink a bit too much. When reading the Scroll of Esther in the congregation, we drown out the name of the villainous Haman with noisemakers (groggers)—as if we can silence the force of evil.

Purim is one of my favorite holidays, mostly because it weaves profound messages into all the silliness. One of them is that, even with all our discerning and planning and preparing, sometimes our vocation finds us rather than the other way around. It happens to Esther. 

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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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For Young Women Who Have Considered Their Becoming

Early in her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama shares questions that she had asked herself in a journal she kept throughout her twenties. After working hard and dutifully climbing an educational and professional ladder through Princeton and into a leadership role at a highly regarded Chicago law firm, she realized: “I hated being a lawyer. I wasn’t suited to the work. I felt empty doing it, even if I was plenty good at it.”

Michelle Robinson as a student at Princeton University.
From the Obama-Robinson family archives. Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/06/books/review/michelle-obama-becoming-memoir.html

At the same time, she was newly in love with a man whose personality became a powerful presence in her life:

“I was deeply, delightfully in love with a guy whose forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing mine. … I wasn’t going to get out of its path – I was too committed to Barack by then, too in love – but I did need to quickly anchor myself on two feet.”

Enter the journaled reflections of a twenty-something Michelle Robinson:

“One, I feel very confused about where I want my life to go. What kind of person do I want to be? How do I want to contribute to the world? Two, I am getting very serious in my relationship with Barack and I feel that I need to get a better handle on myself.”

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