Recently my youngest child, who graduated from college last spring, indicated that she could use a little of my advice. I poked around in my ear to make sure I was hearing her. I asked her to repeat what she had said. Sure enough, she was asking for my advice.
Which surprised me, and yet it didn’t. I expect that at a certain age, which is my age, you’re beginning to doubt that you don’t have much good advice to give anyone, which may be a good indication that you actually do have some worthwhile advice to offer. Some kind of weird cosmic law there: When you know you don’t know, then you do.
Besides, the years right after college, especially right after a liberal arts college education, may be the most bewildering of all. Everything and everyone has prepared you for the idea that you are to make a big difference in the world, but no one has said exactly how.
So you finish up with your degree in history or English or philosophy, with a minor in rock climbing, avalanche snow-boarding, or world travel, and look around for the map to the Promised Land. There seem to be two pathways; one leads to another, even longer sentence — er, I mean “term,” in something called “graduate school.” The second route leads nowhere clear, but appears headed toward something marked, “Here Be Dragons,” with a preliminary stop as a barista.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised that my daughter confessed she was unsure what direction to head, what kind of work or job she might want to do, or what her true and deepest calling was. It also occurred to me, as we talked, that this generation may labor under a particularly vexed privilege, the idea that the work you do should entail life’s deepest meaning and allow you to “follow your bliss,” a phrase made popular by mythologist Joseph Campbell, as channeled by Bill Moyers.
I recently participated in something called “An Appreciative Inquiry Exercise” during which I was asked to “Recall a time when you felt most alive, creative, inspired, in harmony with yourself and your world.” From this memory I was to discern my future path. What occurred to me, in answer to the question, was something like “Having sex as a 22-year-old.”
I guess such questions are worth asking, but I wonder if the underlying assumptions haven’t somehow made finding a path in life, not to mention a job, even more challenging than it already is.
After all, if we the get the notion that the kind of work we ought to do will be something that makes us feel “most alive, creative, inspired, and in harmony with yourself and your world,” we have set the bar fairly high. Like ridiculously high. So now, in addition to figuring out next steps, young adults have to find work that is inspired, creative, and puts them in a state of harmonic convergence and sounds stunning in the family Christmas letter (scratch that, no one sends those anymore).
Don’t get me wrong. I am in favor of work that is meaningful and intrinsically (and not merely extrinsically) rewarding. But even work that does offer such noble possibilities will be marked by times of frustration and tedium. Moreover, some of the work most worth doing may, at times, be darn hard and more or less entirely bliss-less. So the idea that we should all be able to come up with jobs that supply adventure, meaning, spiritual depth, and bliss 24/7 may be asking a bit much.
Sometimes, in fact, the better part of wisdom may be not expecting ever more of work, but less. By which I mean no job or even vocation can be asked to bear all our heart’s longings or provide complete meaning for our lives. Better perhaps to lower our expectations and then be pleasantly surprised every now and again. “Happiness,” Lincoln famously said, “is an inside job.” His presumably quite meaningful job proved something other than blissful.
So perhaps we ought to give ourselves and our kids a break. Yes, hope for, seek, and by all means do work you find meaningful and enjoy, if at all possible. But it’s also OK to just have a job, to pay the bills and keep body and soul together, to feed your family if you have one, and to show up and be kind to the people you work with.
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