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.
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.”
To consider education as gift, above and beyond what one might pay for it, changes the way that we reflect on and carry out the work for which education prepares us.
When my oldest son was in elementary school, he would quite innocently announce that he was in the “gifted and talented” program at his school. His mom and I would wince. Would others take his proclamation to be the self-deserving swagger of a 10-year-old white kid? He is now on the college admissions circuit. Have we parents, teachers, coaches, and pastors enabled him to see and resist wielding his white, male privilege? And, if so, could he nonetheless hold onto his 10-year-old self-understanding that he (and you and I) are, indeed, gifted and talented—quite literally the recipients of gifts and the stewards of talents that we did not earn but that we are called to develop and use for the flourishing of whole communities?
My recent posts have circled around this notion of giftedness and being gifted. I’ve suggested that the circulation of gifts is a more helpful way to describe being educated for vocation than what often passes for purpose and meaning within higher education. This is largely because education, in both private and public settings, has been made into an investment seeking return and a product to be purchased. To consider education as gift, above and beyond what one might pay for it, changes the way that we reflect on and carry out the work for which education prepares us. I want to bring some of these musing together here and consider how understanding students as gifted and education as a gift economy can lead to restorative and regenerative work.
Driven by a life-long calling to educational equity, Mary Dana Hinton became the 13th president of Hollins University in August 2020 after serving as president of the College of Saint Benedict for many years. In a new episode of the NetVUE podcast series, she shares that on some days her calling feels heavy. She goes on to describe how the inspiration of her hard-working mother, the encouragement from early mentors, and the uplifting teachings of the black church have kept her going over the years.
As a young girl in Kittrell, North Carolina, Mary Dana Hinton never imagined she might one day become the president of a college. Driven by a life-long calling to educational equity, she became the 13th president of Hollins University in August 2020 after serving as president of the College of Saint Benedict for many years. In a new episode of the NetVUE podcast series, Callings, she shares that on some days her calling feels heavy. She goes on to describe how the inspiration of her hard-working mother, the encouragement from early mentors, and the uplifting teachings of the black church have kept her going over the years.
Proximity—from the Latin proximus meaning the “nearest” or “close to the actual,” and similar to the Spanish noun prójimo, neighbor— brings down the barriers, burdens, and biases that separate us from others. Stevenson’s example of proximity invites us to reflect on the things that really matter to each of us and to our students in these urgent and uncertain times.
Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.
After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listenedto by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.
SOPHIA Program Fall Retreat 2019. Canonicus Camp, Exeter, Rhode Island
Jason Mahn (Augustana College, IL) interviews a former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how he and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.
A conversation with activist Dezi Gillon (Augustana College, ‘16).
Dezi Gillon (they/them) is a teaching artist and healer living on occupied Potawatomi territory—what is known today as Rogers Park, Chicago. In 2016, they graduated from Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois) with Religion and Sociology majors, having participated in Interfaith Understanding, Black Student Union, AugiEquality, and Micah House, a residential intentional community. They went on to graduate from Union Theological Seminary (New York) with an MDiv in 2019 and are currently working with Alternatives Youth and Family Services as a restorative justice coach and educator. I interviewed my former student in order to learn more about the callings to justice-work among students of color and how I and other white professors can better support them as they live out those callings.
A Christian theology of vocation has to be illumined by Easter because Easter is much more than a feast that Christians nostalgically commemorate once a year; rather, Easter is a truth to live into, a truth to embrace in order to share.
Take away Easter, and hope dies. Take away Easter, and darkness prevails. Take away Easter, and all the sorrow and suffering, all the grief and affliction, all the tears and travail, stand forever unanswered. Take away Easter, and death wins, because if God cannot free Jesus from the tomb, how can there be lasting life—unassailable life—for anyone?
Over the past few months, the world has been shrouded in death. The plague unleashed by COVID-19 has ignited so much fear, so much anxiety and stress and uncertainty, that it is easy to feel that death is winning. How can it not be when each day brings more images of graves hurriedly dug so that more bodies can fill them? How can it not be when people who were thrown suddenly out of work wonder how they can pay their bills and feed their families? How can it not be when a virus not only squeezes every breath of life from a person, but assures that they will die alone?
In a previous post, I introduced two related concerns I have with the otherwise difficult, commendable work of turning a career into a calling. My concerns, again, are these:
First: If I were to fully and without remainder make my career into a calling, would that collapse the difference between them? Would calling and career become synonyms, such that the first no longer transcends and troubles the second?
Second: If it is I who makes meaning, and forges a path, and crafts a job, and even serves others through my work, does this mean that a calling is something that I always actively invent and employ, rather than hear and respond to? Can meaning, purpose, and service fall fully within my control without turning them into something they’re not?
Here I want to explore the second, related claim—namely, that strategically transforming a career into a calling risks giving too much custody and charge (not to mention credit) to any one human being. It risks obscuring the receptive, responsive dimension of being called, which is otherwise decisive to the phenomenon. Continue reading “The Chastening of Careerists, Part 2”
I had the good fortune to present at a regional NetVUE gathering here at Augustana College (Rock Island, IL) earlier this summer alongside Bryan J. Dik, professor at Colorado State University, leading researcher in “vocational psychology,” and co-author (with Ryan Duffy) of Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work.I have learned a great deal from the book, from Bryan’s presentation, and from our dinner conversation the night before. Most helpful is his insistence that, just as important as choosing and preparing for a relevant vocation—indeed, maybe more important—is a person’s ongoing work of crafting whatever job or career she or he currently holds into more and more of a calling. In other words, the work of living a calling goes far beyond the vocational discernment and decisions of college students. The initial selection of a career that draws on one’s gifts and passions and which contributes to the needs of the community is certainly important. And of course many of us (actually most of us) will need to reassess our chosen careers, repurpose, retool, “reinvent ourselves.” But even those of us on traditional career paths with relatively linear trajectories (tenured professors may be some of the few remaining!) can and should still find new ways to make meaning, forge purpose, and serve others through our work.
I am convinced that my colleagues and I would find more meaning, be more effective, and be, well, happier, were we to more intentionally, strategically, and regularly make our careers into callings. Still, I find myself wanting to offer a word of caution about the work of forging a career into a vocation. Continue reading “The Chastening of Careerists, Part 1”
Several years ago, The Road From Coorainwas one of the featured texts in our first year seminar. The first ten or so pages offer a detailed description of the author’s natal land of Australia, and some of the students complained that it went on “way too long” and was boring. When the author, Dr. Jill Ker Conway, visited campus and delivered a convocation address, she suggested that they consider the landscape as one of the characters in the book, which gave the smarter students pause and forced them to reconsider the work. I was reminded of this pedagogical moment recently when I heard the news that Dr. Ker Conway had passed away. She was a remarkable woman and while I could easily devote a whole essay to her autobiography as well as her accomplishments, what I want to focus on is how particular places can give shape and meaning to our lives. Continue reading “The Calling of Place”
Have you ever taken, or taught, a listening course?
Neither have I.
From the beginnings of education, the 3 R’s (“Reading, Riting, and Arithmetic”) dominate the curriculum in one form or another. Speech gets some attention in later years, but not much. Listening gets almost no place. According to a 2012-2013 survey, out of approximately 7,700 undergraduate institutions in the U. S. (which must surely offer hundreds of thousands of classes), only 181 courses in listening were taught. We might want to rethink this hierarchy, enhancing listening as a field and offering more classes in it—or at least developing modules around listening skills in more of our classes. Continue reading “Listen up! How Good is Your Listening Quotient?”