A recent New York Times article by Jeffrey J. Selingo, entitled, “Will You Sprint, Stroll or Stumble Into a Career?” was shared 12,000 times on Facebook. It pinpointed the ever-longer postponement of “adulthood” which characterizes twenty-somethings today, with “adulthood” defined as settling definitively upon a career, and likely embarking around the same time upon marriage and children. Selingo interviewed a number of graduates in their late twenties and early thirties who had forged a variety of pathways to a career, some of them traditional (i.e. beginning and staying in a career directly after college), others circuitous, marked by many experimental way-stations before a ‘final’ career was decided upon.

I find the current trends both in college education itself and the careers pursued afterwards to be rather paradoxical. On the one hand, it is well-documented that liberal arts colleges and majors are in sad decline because students, worried about loan debt and a fickle job market, opt for a more ‘vocational’, often technical curriculum which presumably provides a surer pipeline to a job. On the other hand, one reads increasingly about people, young and old, who successfully reinvent themselves, often dumping the lucrative careers they studied--and borrowed--to attain, to pursue something completely unrelated, something which may, even at first seem impractical.

These second- (or third-) chance stories of self-reinvention are our favorite kind, for obvious reasons. They speak of people discovering their calling, shedding convention and boredom in the process, and sometimes even making a killing at their new, more fulfilling career. And they refute the idea that one must stay on a straight and narrow path (which one is often unsuited for) to achieve success. Such stories exalt and encourage nonconformity and creativity, implying that there is fun to be had on the road to success; one need not just plod along a prescribed path. Trying out different occupations is a key reason why 20-somethings nowadays need a longer road into “maturity”.

Some unconventional success stories are mythic in stature.  There is, of course, Steve Jobs, who dropped out of prestigious Reed College in 1972 and went on to found Apple in 1976. Or Mark Zuckerberg, who inaugurated Facebook while a sophomore at Harvard, then dropped out to pursue his visionary business. For Jobs and Zuckerberg, the runway from student to international magnate was abrupt, more a Eureka moment than a meander.

A new Wall Street Journal article by Clare Ansberry provides a surprising answer to the conundrum of calculated march to success vs. experimental wandering. Entitled “When You’re Called to Your Life’s Work,” the piece recounts how “some people shift career paths after a revelatory moment or dream; an archaeologist’s photo, a doctor’s encounter with a homeless man.” The people interviewed included an archaeologist and two psychologists who radically changed their career trajectory because of a sudden moment of intuition and certainty.

Ansberry asks, “Can we distinguish between actual callings and delusions? Is a feeling of being called good for you, and can it ever be bad? Do such experiences come from within—certain brain activity—or without—a source that can only be described as divine?” Ansberry’s question urges us to consider the issue from a psychological and spiritual perspective rather than an economic one. The subjects in the article all reported that once they began to follow intuition rather than convention, external events, sometimes serendipitous ones, often supported and cultivated their transitions, leading eventually to success.

The late James Hillman, a Jungian scholar, psychologist and believer in Jung’s theory of synchronicity, i.e. the essential relatedness of inner psychological states to external events, famously posited the “acorn theory” of character and calling. In the bestselling book, The Soul’s Code, Hillman claimed that our calling in life is inborn, that our lives are formed by a particular image, just as the oak’s destiny is embodied in a tiny acorn. This view looks deep into the individual’s psyche and biography rather than at formulas for success based on markets, statistics or the tyranny of trends.

Hilllman cites, for example, the strange childhood of Coco Chanel, raised strictly in a convent by nuns, to explain her later invention of the severe “little black dress,” and of fashions notable for their visual discipline, an echo, perhaps of the nuns’ black and white habits. Childhood disadvantages, even those we consider to be traumas, may be put to creative use once one has heeded the signs of calling. Hillman writes, “A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also possess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It makes its claim.”

I suppose that the “acorn theory” and the experiences of the people in the Wall Street Journal article may provide rather vague models to emulate, yet they are far more inspiring to me than sheer obedience to the marketplace. And they seem, surprisingly, to lead to success as surely as more apparently reliable routes.

I believe we need to resurrect the four years of college as a time and place to investigate our own interests and passions, including those addressed by the liberal arts. We live now in a time when communication has replaced manufacturing as the dominant force in the economy. Therefore, the art of attentive reading and writing must take on a revived prominence so that new generations can use words--spoken or digitally transmitted--powerfully and correctly.

I am reminded suddenly of Marlon Brando’s iconic scene in the movie On The Waterfront, when he confronts his brother with a lament for his lost boxing career: “I coulda been a contender!”

The “acorn theory” of calling reminds us that we all are contenders, with an inborn right to explore our own fate, part of which is finding the work we are really cut out to do. There is no formulaic answer to the question of career, but given the volatility and unpredictability of our civilization today, it would seem that learning to read critically, to think on your feet and to write clearly--timeless, marketable, and, above all, adaptable skills--is as important as any specific vocational curriculum. Intuition is never obsolete.


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