Ribs and Lungs: What I’ve Learned about Vocation from Young Professionals of Color

Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This post is part of a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.

In Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi tells a story about his med-school days when he first tried to read an X-ray image.

At first, he says, he couldn’t see anything but the ribs. In desperation, he sidled up to some seasoned doctors and eavesdropped on their analysis. Oscillating between what they were saying and what they were seeing, Polanyi gradually stopped looking at the ribs and started seeing the lungs.

If you work as I do in a college community, you know the challenges of helping students see the lungs in the life of learning. Think of the ribs as the deadlines on the syllabus, the grade point averages at midterms, the multiple-choice questions on the final exam. The lungs are all the things that make you want to study something in the first place, all the insights and frameworks that enable laughter in the classroom and the smart hubbub of collaborative conversation.

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Deep Work and the Problem with Overcommunication

I remember in the fall of 2020 hearing our provost say, “Overcommunication with students will be a must this semester.” He was thinking about the challenges of remote learning. But isn’t overcommunication just what professors do? Our over-long syllabi aside, we’re always crafting top-heavy email invitations for semesters of meaningful work. Pressing “send” on over-communication gives us a satisfaction akin to what Shakespeare must have felt completing Sonnet 116.

And then, we receive our first email from a student: “Hey prof thx the class will be dank idk is textbk in or do u class need it?!?”

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Grind, Burn, Pivot, Give: How Young Professionals Talk About Vocation


Craig Mattson has interviewed many young professionals about their work experiences and their lives following graduation. This is the first in a series about what he has learned and how it might inform our work with young adults about vocation.


Professors should pay more attention to two vocation stories that circulate in the first decade after college.

The first is the Grind Story. Sometimes this sounds like a saga of sailing far oceans and seeing strange creatures. But the plotline usually caps off with, “I’ve been working like 70-hour weeks, and it’s super hard, but I’m gonna get there.” Sometimes, this story sounds cheerfully heroic, like the guy I talked to who’d started an organization called Grind Greatly. Sometimes, though, the voices sound pretty grim.

The second narrative is the Burn Story. This dystopian tale about torching capitalism has three essential plot points: (1) Burn (2) Everything (3) Down. I don’t hear this story very often, honestly. Let’s just say that it doesn’t fit the aesthetics of a LinkedIn post. Still, some early-career professionals have so much to do and so little power to do it with that they wish they could tell the Burn Story.

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