David Brooks on the Pitfalls of College Graduation and the Origin of Calling

David Brooks’ recent op-ed in the New York Times is a provocative piece called: “It’s Not About You.” He writes about the perils of graduating from college and entering as world that is “wide open and unstructured.”

Today’s grads are sent into the world with the platitudes of graduation speeches. But these, according to Brooks, don’t serve grads well:

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to. The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy.

This might help to explain why so many adults in their 20s appear to be adrift. For an in-depth analysis of the challenges facing this group of people, see Christian Smith’s excellent book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.

I'm currently reading Brooks' most recent book, The Social Animal. It spells out in greater detail some of the thoughts in his op-ed piece.

Moreover, that which makes life most meaningful does not necessarily flow from a well developed sense of self:

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.

Do you think Brooks is right about this? Do we get our calling from the problems that summon our attention and fuel our passion?

As a Christian, I am quick to say that we get our calling from God, or at least that we should get our calling from God. But, among psychologically healthy people, God rarely calls in an audible voice. Rather, our sense of God’s call comes from a variety of sources. Might these include problems that summon us? Might we hear God’s “voice” in the needs and challenges of our lives and our world?

No doubt this is true, at least in part. Today, it seems, college grads are more than ever stirred by the world’s problems. Many speak of wanting to work for some NGO in order to tackle afflictions like human trafficking, climate change, or global hunger. A few grads even see the potential for solving such problems in the context of business or government.

Yet recent college graduates, like the rest of us, can be quickly overwhelmed by the actual problems of the actual world. Some end up exhausting themselves trying to make everything better. Others slip into self-excusing cynicism, realizing that they cannot make much of a difference compared to the scope of the problems. So, beyond listening to the problems that call us, we need communities of discernment to help us sort out how best to use our gifts and opportunities in life. Brooks rightly notes:

Finally, graduates are told to be independent-minded and to express their inner spirit. But, of course, doing your job well often means suppressing yourself. As Atul Gawande mentioned during his countercultural address last week at Harvard Medical School, being a good doctor often means being part of a team, following the rules of an institution, going down a regimented checklist.

Thus, the “find yourself” and “be yourself” message of so many graduation speeches can steer students wrong by implying that meaning in life comes from individualistically focusing on themselves. In fact, the opposite it true, according to Brooks as he concludes his column:

Today’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center. Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.

Hmmm. Now that sounds strangely familiar. It sounds, well, rather like Jesus:

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9:23-25)


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