Do what you love: The obligation to find one’s true calling

My favorite chapter in Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work is “Career Counselling.” Here he discusses the modern idea that work should make us happy, along with the assumption that work defines our identity and the belief that it is work that makes our existence meaningful.

De Botton arranged to observe a career counsellor, Robert Symons, as he interacted with his clients (after obtaining the clients’ permission). (You can get a sense of Symons, who is also a psychologist, from the title of his unpublished book: The Real Me: Career as an Act of Selfhood.) Here are some of de Botton’s observations. (emphasis added)

On missing one’s true calling

[Symons] remarked that the most common and unhelpful illusion plaguing those who came to see him was the idea that they ought somehow, in the normal course of events, to have intuited – long before they had finished their degrees, started families, bought houses and risen to the top of law firms – what they should properly be doing with their lives. They were tormented by a residual notion of having through some error or stupidity on their part missed out on their true ‘calling’.

This curious and unfortunate term had first come into circulation in a Christian context during the medieval period, in reference to people’s abrupt encounter with an imperative to devote themselves to Jesus’ teachings. But Symons maintained that a secularised version of this notion had survived even into the modern age, where it was prone to torture us with an expectation that the meaning of our lives might at some point be revealed to us in a ready-made and decisive form, which would in turn render us permanently immune to feelings of confusion, envy and regret.

On money, status and authenticity

Symons knew that it was hopeless to try to guide people towards more fulfilling vocations simply by discussing with them directly what they might like to do. Concerns about money and status would long ago have extinguished most clients’ ability to think authentically about their options.

Individuals have only themselves to blame

Symons was hired to conduct a seminar on ‘Self-Confidence’ for 25 middle-mangers who were being laid off. In the seminar, he projects slides with slogans such as “I can be strong and move mountains.” He hands out a leaflet with the quotation “A man can do all things if he will.” De Botton finds the proceedings difficult to watch and retreats to a restroom for “mental relief.”

I realised that Symons’s talk unsettled me because it reflected a disturbing but ultimately unavoidable truth about achievement in the modern world. In older, more hierarchical societies, an individual’s fate had largely been decided by the accidents of birth; the difference between success and failure had not hung on a proficiency with the declaration I can move mountains.

However, in the meritocratic, socially mobile modern world, one’s status might now well be determined by one’s confidence, imagination and ability to convince others of one’s due – a possibility of advancement which shone a less flattering light on philosophies of stoicism and resignation. It seemed that one might squander one’s life chances because of a high-handed disdain for books with titles such as The Will to Succeed, believing that one was above their shrill slogans of encouragement. One might be doomed not by a lack of talent, but by a species of pessimistic pride.

Related posts:
My so-called writing life
Can we think outside our culture: My Chinese horoscope
The problem is you
Bruckner on the good life, money, and the unequal world of work
The duty to be happy
The unavoidable and burdensome responsibility to be happy
This mess we’re in – Part 2
This mess we’re in – Part 3

Image source: Rob Draper at flickr


Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work


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