Follow Your Bliss? Bad Advice for Calling 

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.” 

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From Career Paths to Communications Circuits: Vocation and Book History

Book history, in ways that I believe can be deeply meaningful for our students, explores the happy if constrained juxtaposition of creative pleasure and material necessity.

As an English teacher, I’m always attuned to language and its implications. The language of vocation tends to be a language of opportunity: to grow and flourish, to move forward, to make life-defining choices. Correspondingly, the imagery is of doors opening, of young people silhouetted against a sun-drenched landscape, their backs to us as they move forward into the radiant future. Both this language and imagery signal individualism, which is also present in my college’s exhortation to students to pursue their own “unique career path.” All this is certainly sensible: we want students to have a path to follow when they leave us, and to thrive and find fulfilment in the wider world. But in my interactions with students about the broad issue of vocational discernment, I find myself emphasizing the language not of opportunity but of constraint. Counterintuitive as it may seem, being explicit about how life choices are constrained by responsibilities to others and by factors out of our control can offer students a more robust framework for thinking about how to move forward.

Since the Lutheran mission of my college is vestigial, and since my students rarely have much formation in the concept of vocation, I don’t usually raise questions about discernment directly in the classroom. I do, however, teach a course on book history—the material lives of texts—that I have found a useful place to engage students in reflection about how they want their education and their lives to matter.

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Who and What Should I Believe?

We are responsible for what we believe because our beliefs have consequences. In the face of so much information, we must periodically ask ourselves some tough questions. How do I know this fact? Why do I believe this idea?

We live at a moment in history when making decisions about who to believe is harder than ever. We have more access to information than at any time in history, but our care in consuming information has not caught up with our ability to create it. Public officials rationalize using “alternative facts” to make decision. Modern science falls prey to the whims of popular opinion or motivated reasoning, but conspiracy theories attract millions of Americans, including how they think about COVID-19. Studies show that students have trouble distinguishing fact from fiction on the internet and the rhetoric since the election has shown this study to be prescient. We are suffering what some call “truth decay.” Lines demarcating differing realms of knowledge are so blurred that everyone is free to “believe what you will.” 

We need to encourage critical thinking (rhetorically and in the classroom), but we need more. In navigating the information deluge, we need to think about what beliefs merit our faith and what ideas merit our trust. Attention to the ethics of belief is crucial to not merely surviving these tumultuous times but thriving. 

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Vocation Virtually: Place, Roles, Responsibilities

We can’t always control the roles that choose us, but they are “places of responsibility” nonetheless.

Part 2 of a series describing an electronic “vPortfolio” (vocation portfolio) developed at Augsburg University and centered on five metaphors for vocation: place, path, perspective, people, story.

A second metaphor for vocation is place.  Understanding this metaphor cultivates the sense that “I’m in the right place.”

The metaphor of place is most at home in the Lutheran tradition, reflecting Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) revolutionary argument that God equally values all roles, that of parent as well as priest, that of shoemaker or brewer as well as monk or nun. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) identifies these roles as “places of responsibility,” where one might serve both God and neighbor. In language prominent in the vocation movement in American higher education, theologian Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) defines vocation: “the place God calls you to is the place where the world’s deep hunger and your own deep gladness meet.” 

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The Call of Lyric Poems

Lyric poems call us to attend to the world differently, to see differently. Their condensed, compelling use of language can offer something essential about being in the world that can shift our vision. While that shift may be complex and even painful in the best of times, it’s a more-than-sufficient reason to teach poetry in our classrooms.

Poems are scattered throughout the scholarship on vocation—or at least excerpts from poems—so much so that I’m not worried about the death of poetry any time soon. But why teach poetry as we discuss vocation with students? A host of recent articles have suggested what poetry can offer the general reader, especially in a global pandemic: solace (“The Importance of Poetry in Challenging Times and How to Teach Students About It”), rejuvenation for a dwindling attention span (“Books Briefing: If Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Read Poetry”), a boost to creativity (“How Poetry Shakes Up the National Desk’s Morning Meetings”). But even if we don’t disagree with these suggestions, most of them are not sufficient reasons for teaching poetry to undergraduates even if they suggest pragmatic ends for reading it.

We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?

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