Hide it under a bushel? Yes! or No?

I’ve been working on a post about vocation, but I think I will save that one for next week, because this weekend I will be at a conference where one of the topics under discussion will be “scholarship as vocation.” I’m also presenting on the alt-ac part of a panel on the job search, which should be interesting. I’m very much looking forward to all of it!

I’ve also been thinking about African-American spirituals again, or rather, letting their lyrics be a reflection of what I’ve been thinking about. Some of you might know “This Little Light of Mine.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. … 
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine!

When I was a kid, the answer to whether I’d let my light shine or hide it under a bushel. Yes, please, hand that bushel over! Quickly! At night before bed, I’d sometimes invite my mother for what we called a “chat.” Usually this meant not just a five-minute, how-are-you sort of thing, but something much more long-winded, usually about whatever was running around in my head at the time. If I had something particularly weighty to share, I’d put my favorite blanket over my head before proceeding to discuss whatever it was I need to share.

At the public library, of which I was a frequent and enthusiastic patron, I was terrified to ask for help from the librarians, for fear that they would judge me for being interested in whatever it was. The more interested I was, the more terrified I felt. I know now that librarians are some of the most helpful people on earth; helping others find information is one of their reasons for existing. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for advice on how to find books about archaeology, or film-making, or Robin-Hood, or fantasy literature, or what-have-you. Consequently, I became a very good user of card catalogs. My strongest memory is of the old microfilm catalog, where you had to choose if you wanted to search by title, author, or subject, and then sit in front of what, to a 10- or 12-year-old girl must have been an very imposingly sized machine, in order to find those precious call numbers. Once I had the call numbers, I was good to go. I’d see what else was on the shelf and pick up a few more titles, all the while eyeing the librarian to see if she (or he, but usually she) was spying on me or judging me.

In retrospect, this sounds paranoid. What librarian wouldn’t have loved to help a kid eager to learn? I’m glad of my auto-didactic skills in the library (they certainly served me in good stead in graduate school!) but I wonder what it would have been like to trust people a little more. To choose a bushel a little less dark in which to hide, so that maybe some light would shine through.

Light seeped out. It seeped onto the pages of my dozens of little 3″x5″ journals that I’d buy at the local Hallmark store next to our grocery store. Light poured into the warmth of my favorite reading nook in the public library, a window seat in the back corner, as I eagerly read the books I’d discovered.

Open the bushel, close it. Throw the blanket over my head, remove it. One summer, one of those glorious summers in high school that you look back on for the rest of your life as an irrecoverable moment to which you’d gladly return, the light came pouring out. I was at a summer music camp, Tanglewood, where I listened to awe-inspiring music nearly every night. Ironically, I was there to study my instrument, and I did, but half-way through, sitting on a bench in a cozy bookstore in downtown Lenox, MA, I realized I wasn’t going to pursue the French horn in a professional capacity, but probably wanted to do something more intellectual, using my head.

(I may have been under the mistaken impression that it would be easier to get a job as a philosopher than a French horn player. After all, my second cousin was married to a philosopher, and as I’d found out at a family reunion, was getting paid to be in graduate school. What on earth could be better! I think that, the summer after 10th grade, was the most likely start point of this particular career trajectory. I didn’t ask them about what happened after graduate school, of course, but I was 14, doing quite well at school – thankyouverymuch – and the idea that I could get paid to do just that probably left a powerful impression on my young mind.  But I digress.)

At the end of that summer (the summer after 11th grade), I had one of those dreams that changed everything, at least for a little while. I don’t recall the specifics, but upshot was that I raised my hand in class, a philosophy class with my favorite teacher, said my piece, and the sky didn’t fall. I went back to school a different person than the smart, but quiet, person I’d been before. I raised my hand in class, especially humanities classes, and the sky didn’t fall. A little light was shining, and my teachers noticed, wrote glowing recommendations, and I got into a most awesome small liberal arts college.

Eventually stress, or college, or life–I’ll brush past whatever it might have been–got in the way, and things became less shiny again, and the cycle repeated itself a few more times. These things do run in cycles. What’s clear to me now is that I’m at a place in a cycle where I am no longer willing to hide under a bushel.

What that will mean, practically speaking, I’m not sure. I will likely be rearranging this website at some point in the future, or starting a new one (and I hope those of you that are following me here, will follow me there as well!) — all of this remains to be determined.  For now, though, I’m getting ready to take that blanket off my head once again.


“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Ms. Mentor offered words of advice to a young master’s degree student in the humanities, who says to her, “They say I’ll never get a job.” And Ms. Mentor, thankfully, agrees.  She does her best to dissuade this eager, intelligent young mind who is bent on further knowledge, further praise for his or her pursuit of this chosen field, and offers up the following advice:

So how should you rethink the traditional parade from honor society to Ph.D. to professor? Ms. Mentor suggests you identify your early drive, the thing that you wanted to do—and got praised for—when you were a tyke. Tiger Woods was already swinging a golf club when he was 2. By age 5, Mozart was composing music; Edith Wharton was making up short stories. Jean Piaget published his first scientific paper, on albino sparrows, when he was 11.
Can you make a living doing some version of your youthful drive? That is the stumbly step…

Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately, with the help of my career coach, about this stumbly step, about the things that drove me and what I liked to do when I was a tyke.  This idea, that one should look back to what one wanted to do when very little, seems to have a lot of currency. It’s like finding your passion, but even more so, because when you were a kid, presumably the things you wanted to do with your life had little to do with practicality, feasibility, or any other such humdrum matters that might stop up the thinking of us more world-weary grown-ups.

My daughter, who is five years old, developed out of seemingly nowhere a year ago, a couple of convenient answers to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” One was to be a firefighter, and the other was to be a paleontologist, because she loves the show Dinosaur Train. I have no idea where the firefighter idea came from.  The paleontologist at least makes sense, until you show her an actual museum of real fossils, and suddenly, when the dinosaurs before her no longer look like Buddy and Tiny, she’s turning into her father’s or my shoulder and waist, afraid of the real bones before her.

Over the years, I had what seems like a fairly extensive, and not obviously well-connected, list of things I wanted to do, ranging from being an astronaut, a park ranger, a writer, an anthropologist, a movie director, a professional classical musician, and eventually, once I hit college and a couple of things came together for me, struck on the idea of being a college professor. Now that I’m pursuing this alt-ac journey, I don’t think I’m going to go back and try to be an astronaut (my fifth-grade teacher was right about the math) or a park ranger (why do I have to have interests for which its damnably hard to find jobs?)… but hopefully somewhere in this list is a clue to that early drive that kicked me into high gear.  What I can see is that  some of them have to do with gathering and disseminating knowledge, and some of them have to do with creating something that evokes an experience. The two are related, really, as two sides of the same coin, two ways of accessing the same youthful questions that animated me for years and years. Recently the weight of the emphasis has fallen pretty heavily on knowledge, rather than creation, and what I will do with that little fact remains to be seen.

What about you? Are you following your earliest dreams from when you were a tyke? Does the post-ac life somehow fit better with those early goals and ideals, or do academia and what you’re doing now mesh pretty well with your childhood aspirations? 


Passion versus skills, the post-ac/alt-ac edition

As I have mused on how to figure out “what I want to do with my life” (at a really embarrassing, long-past-college age), I’ve run into an apparent debate between two modes of thought: one, with which I’m all too familiar, suggests we follow our passion in our pursuit of a career, and the other mode emphasizes developing our skills, instead.

I am one of those people who’s all-too-likely to think in terms of finding a vocation, “following your passion,” that One (Elusive) Thing I Am Supposed To Be Doing With My Life.  I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs test a few times over the years, and I always get the same results: INFJ. INFJs are apparently suckers for following their passion. The most amusing website I found when looking for information about “INFJ careers” was this one.  It made me laugh out loud, because it described me so very well (and with a touch of ironic humor that I can’t help but appreciate) was this line: “There are jobs, there are careers, and there are callings.  (What INFJ would not like to find their ‘calling’?!)” 

Naturally, then, I turned to thinking about calling, passion, vocation. Quotes I’ve remembered throughout my life drifted back to me. The poet William Stafford offers one view of following your passion in his poem “The Way It Is.”

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

I like this poem because it seems a little more forgiving for us followers of the thread. Even if we don’t know where the thread leads us, it’s still there, guiding us, even if in the background. I vacillate between two readings of this poem: either we are always holding on to the thread, whether we know it or not (and there’s a comforting connection that runs through the winding paths of our lives), or perhaps we ought to consciously hold onto the thread: it’s described as something we are possibly able to explain to others.

Ralph Ellison offers a different approach in The Invisible Man, whose central character describes his own path with these words:

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. But first I had to discover that I am an invisible man!”

Painful boomeranging of my expectations, indeed! If only being onesself or following threads were more explicitly clear in terms of what that meant one should actually do!

In a realm more specific to the job search process, I recently stumbled onto Barbara Sher’s book I Could Do Anything, If Only I Knew What It Was. Sher clearly represents the passion side of the passion vs. skills debate, in which she writes:

“I know what you should be doing. You should be doing what you love. … You do know what you want. Everybody does. That’s why you feel so restless when you can’t find the right track. You sense there’s some particular work you are meant to be doing. And you’re right.” (1994 ed., p. 2-3).

I’m a sucker for this kind of language, especially when she couches it in such familiar terms as these:

“I don’t really care what your skills are. When I was a single mother with two babies, you know what my skills were? I could clean house like a demon, catch a moving bus with my arms full of laundry, groceries, and kids; and squeeze a dollar until the picture of George Washington screamed for mercy. I do not want the career that uses those skills, thank you” (2, former italics in the original, the latter italics added).

I most certainly don’t want the career that uses those particular skills I’ve honed over the past three years of my daughter’s life, either. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, and I love my daughter very much, but I just can’t do the “full-time mommy without something else going on professionally” thing.

Despite apparently knowing clearly what I don’t want, I do fall into the group of people who nonetheless has trouble articulating what, in fact, as poet Mary Oliver would say, I want to do “with my one wild and precious life.”

The skills-based approach to choosing a career offers a different trajectory that’s focused less on following a predetermined passion that’s apparently writ in the stars and there in your blood (please note the undertone of sarcasm there), than on developing skills that you enjoy using. I’m only starting to figure out the connections and contrasts between these approaches, so I offer this one today as an example:

In his New York Times article “Follow Your Passion? Let it Follow You,” Cal Newport faced the enviable choice of accepting a job at Microsoft, going to MIT for graduate school, or living off of the advance from his new book and becoming a writer. Despite the overall unfairness of having to choose among such wonderful options, Newport  offered some useful advice.  Rather than worry about which of these meant he could follow his true passion — a thought-process that would have induced only anxiety at the stakes involved in such a choice — Newport brushed aside the “FYP” (follow-your-passion) advice we’ve all heard so often. Instead, he took a different conclusion to heart: 

The alternative career philosophy that drove me is based on this simple premise: The traits that lead people to love their work are general and have little to do with a job’s specifics. These traits include a sense of autonomy and the feeling that you’re good at what you do and are having an impact on the world.

He explained that he didn’t initially feel that graduate school had landed him in the embrace of his true calling, due to the insecurities of graduate school (with which most readers of this blog are likely all-too-familiar). He became passionate about his job as his competence increased through hard work, and he is now a professor of computer science, presumably passionate enough about his job.

In recent days, I’ve been trying to learn more about this alternate career philosophy in order to get away from the paralysis that can result from worrying about “following your passion.” I picked up a copy of the book Newport cites in his article, Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and have just begun reading it. Newport’s own book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, apparently takes on the passion argument directly and will probably come up in my reading list, as well.

Perhaps these thoughts will be enough to shush the memory of a talk I heard several years back about finding your passion and going after it. The speaker (who happened to be a man, and may not have had to worry about overdeveloped skills of laundry- and child-hauling), said that for years he avoided his calling. Eventually he realized it would be as easy as opening the phone book and putting his finger on the one listing that would change his life forever and set him on his true path. Yes, I remember thinking, I want to open the phone book and find my true passion! (Who wouldn’t!) Immediately, though, the guilt about not knowing which listing to turn to, or much less which letter of the alphabet to start with, coursed through me. I don’t know what my passion is! What if I choose the wrong one because I’m deluding myself? Why does this supposedly simple ability to know what I want elude me? I wondered, my anxiety rising.

For the next few days, I’m going to focus on this skills-based approach, to accept that in one’s lifetime, there may be many passions, which are supported by an ever-expanding set of skills. Just as we don’t have one identity (I’m a mother, a wife, a scholar, a job-seeker, etc.), not all of us will have the luxury of one passion forever. And this is a comforting thought, that with time, perseverance, and the honing of skills, something else will make sense, will become one strand in the thread that I follow, and perhaps one day it’ll all come together in ways that I simply cannot anticipate.