George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a novel of vocation. Almost all the main characters are in search of fulfilling work. Lydgate is forced, because of his marriage, to trade a creative career as a physician for a lucrative one. Fred Vincy, pushed by his parents to become a clergyman, changes course when, with the help of the woman he loves, he finds work that better fits his abilities and temperament. The young heiress Dorothea Brooke contends with the limitations of being a woman who wants desperately to make a contribution to the well-being of others. Eliot’s novel explores the difference between a vocation—a life’s work—and a job. She understood that finding purposeful, fulfilling work is fundamental to giving life meaning, and she has us judge her characters in part based on how successful they are at doing it.
Psychologist Adam Cox begins his recent book, On Purpose Before Twenty, with the same understanding, writing: “The primary missing ingredient in the lives of young people—the opportunity that separates them from a sense of personal accomplishment, maturity, and resilience—is purposeful work.”
As a college teacher and the mother of grown children, I can vouch for the fact that young people are hungry for a sense of vocation but unsure of how to find one. Some go through the motions of learning, sitting lethargically in the classroom. Others drop out, preferring to unload trucks or mow lawns rather than pay tuition for classes that seem useless or uninteresting. In the workplace, they often quit jobs they find boring or that leave them feeling undervalued, even when they are told these jobs are stepping stones to something better.
Cox argues that this attitude is not a whining sense of entitlement, but a valid form of rebellion. By imposing mindless tasks on young people while holding up the idea of a “dream job” or a “dream life,” we encourage their dissatisfaction.
The spirit of vocation—the sense of what can be done and how one could do it—should enter into education early on. Students should be thinking about work, trying out work, watching others work, and coming to an understanding of their own disposition and creative needs as they move through school and acquire concrete knowledge of the world. This doesn’t mean they should be given career-affinity tests that trivialize the idea of finding a vocation. Nor does it mean that they should know what they want to do by the time they leave high school or even when they graduate from college. Cox, quoting psychologist Abraham Maslow, writes that “it isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare psychological achievement.” If the search for vocation is taken seriously, then students who flounder or experiment will feel they are engaged in something important, rather than seeing themselves as wasting time or squandering potential. Their quest will be respected.
One of Cox’s most interesting insights is that adolescent depression is linked to a crisis of vocation. I see it among my students all the time: they want meaningful work, but they don’t see it on the horizon—not just because of the job market, but because they are confused about where to direct their energies and interests. They want time to get to know the world, but they feel rushed to make a decision they fear will be irreparable.
I recently spoke with my nephew who dropped out of an expensive East Coast college last year to move west and do manual labor. He says the move has given him a new perspective. When he goes back to school (as he intends to do, though this time to a community college that won’t put him or his family into debt), he will approach the experience differently. He will view his courses as sources of enrichment and not as means to an end. He says he feels gratified by the work he is doing now. He can look at a road that he helped pave or a set of chairs that he helped arrange and see the tangible results. He feels proud, like he never felt in school, where he was merely going through the motions. College, he says, seemed routinized and crassly opportunistic. Worse, it made him feel bad about himself.
Cox describes how early in his career he worked in an adolescent psychiatric unit, where the young patients were required to make their beds every day as a means of helping them deal with their depression. Cox encouraged them to approach the task with care and pride. It served as the model for an idea of competence on a small scale that they could pursue on a larger one.
I wish that my students could stop feeling pressured to find the ideal job, and simply spend some time being open to the world and perfecting simple tasks that will serve them as models for larger ones.
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