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.”
Genuine duties support each other. We might put it into vocational language by saying that genuine callings support each other. Our families can motivate and support our educations; our educations can enrich and support our families.
Victor Frankenstein is the most irritating protagonist I’ve ever met. Yet I love teaching Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein and exploring the questions it raises, questions not only of what Victor creates but the process by which he creates it. Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is no doctor, but a college student who deals with a predictable college student issue: keeping in touch with home. As he fails to visit or even write to his family, he remembers his father’s words: “I know that while you are pleased with yourself, you will think of us with affection and we shall hear regularly from you. You must pardon me if I regard any interruption in your correspondence as a proof that your other duties are equally neglected.”
“Is his father right?” I ask my students. Is failing to write really a sign that he’s neglecting his other duties? His work is what’s keeping him from writing. Isn’t his research also a duty, deserving focus? Is it even possible to do his kind of work and do other things, like keeping up his family relationships, at the same time?
Listening for a vocation suggests hearing a call to somewhere else, to something not yet present. This post will discuss attention to the present as key to discerning that future vocation.
“Live in the present moment as if there were nothing to expect beyond it.” When I first encountered Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence and his relentless insistence on attention to the present, I thought him quite impractical; as teacher and parent, I always had to consider the future. Then COVID hit. As cherished plans crumpled and the future became a blank, de Caussade’s words became as practical as sanity: This moment is the only moment we have.