Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Why It’s So Hard to Make a Career Choice

A university student is trying to choose a major. She doesn’t feel strongly about any particular kind of employment, so she must make a deliberate choice. She has imagined herself in various work settings and has thought about what she would most enjoy doing. She has not only researched different fields but has also interviewed people and pictured herself in the roles they occupy. It’s hard work choosing a career, because so much is at stake. She wants to make a choice that she’ll be happy with years from now.

She may not be able to put her dilemma into words, but deep in her heart she senses that she is something more than any job will ever allow her to express. Suppose she leans in the direction of becoming a Personnel Manager. You are more than this, her heart tells her. You are more than just a Personnel Manager.

But she doesn’t know how to act on this feeling. She doesn’t know how to take on the role of a Personnel Manager and still, at the same time, be a person who is MORE THAN THIS.

The nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel was a smart guy. He recognized that young people in modern times have trouble committing themselves to a particular line of work because they believe that, by so doing, they’re giving up their freedom and becoming less than they were before. Even in the early 1800s, Hegel already put his finger on the problem.

It seemed to him, though, that young people were mistaken. They weren’t losing anything by taking on a job. On the contrary, it was only by choosing a particular role in life that a person could become somebody. Young people believed themselves to be free only because they had no limitations, but precisely because of their lack of commitment to the larger social sphere, they were also powerless to do anything really important in society. Only by choosing a particular role and embodying it could they become participating members of society, and only in that way could they ever become someone of consequence.

(He said these things, by the way, in Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen W. Wood, ed., H. B. Nisbet, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), § 207.)

In certain respects, Hegel was right. His diagnosis was correct, for even in the twenty-first century, young people often feel a strange constricting of life’s possibilities when they have to choose a career. He was right, also, in saying that the choice must be made in spite of this feeling, and that, if it is not made, then we risk doing nothing of consequence in our world.

But Hegel failed to appreciate the depth and persistence of the problem. Even when people do choose their place in society, they often do not lose the nagging awareness that they are more than the sum total of their social roles. Hegel believed that a well-formed society would allow people full expression of themselves and full recognition from others, but this seems to imply that people truly are nothing more than the roles they play in society. The gospel invites us to believe otherwise.

Christ taught that we are always “more than this” — more than the sum total of the tasks we perform in our daily work. We are not just what we do; we express who we are through the things we do, but there is far more substance to us than a single lifetime will ever give us opportunities to express.

For young people who are trying to decide on a career, it might be useful to think about it this way:

You are more than any one job will allow you to demonstrate, but you’re called to make a difference in this world. In order to do that, you’ll have to commit yourself to some line of work, at least for this period of your life. But no matter what kind of job you undertake, always remember that the job itself cannot define you. Use it to express certain aspects of your personality, but also remain on the lookout for new career directions — new parts of yourself that can be brought into the public sphere, for the good of others. But above all, remember that you’re still somebody even if you’re unemployed or underemployed, or if you’re retired. You’re more than any of these things. You’re made in the image of God — and God is not defined by what He does. Indeed, He cannot be defined at all. But He is known, insofar as He can be known, by Who He Is.

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