Talking with young people about career and calling

If you’ve been around my blog much, you’ve picked up on my deep interest in education, a passion which pokes its head into nearly any topic from using legos to teach grammar to whether the SAT should mean as much as it does. (I wish it didn’t.)

I did a series recently on career and calling and assorted thoughts in other posts, exploring some iras that aren’t really all that revolutionary but needed some space to be worked out.  This post will be less structured …. but along the same lines….

There’s a problem in the way we talk to kids about their life’s work. 

Because the narrative begins with limitless opportunity, we adults never want to do the hard thing and explain to a kid that vocation and calling are tied to individual gifts as much as passion or opportunity.

It’s fine to set the big dreams in front of kids, especially young children, that they might become a scientist or astronaut or famous ball player or even President someday. They need to dream big and pursue aspirations.

But alongside the stratosphere, children need to see regular people working (and hopefully thriving in) “regular” jobs — really see the work. So much of what young people take into their conniption of careers is drawn from TV and movies and misperceptions.

Think about it.  We set teens on a course for college, often with little actual regard for whether that particular pathway actually suits the student. But because college has been equated with economic success, it seems ok to throw everyone into that mill in hopes that good students will find their footing, find a calling, get a job, not build up some debt and then drop out.

We lay the burden of college decision on 16 and 17 year olds who haven’t seen enough of the world to know anything about what they’re choosing.  But because American society values people because of what they can produce, the pressure to enter college at 18 is overwhelming.  What student can face the prospect of disappointing her parents who have scraped dollars into a college fund since before she was born?  And so eager freshmen enter higher education that costs as much as a car each year, to wander through the wasteland of aimless “finding oneself.”

I’m all about education, and I’m a strong advocate for the power of a liberal arts education to free the mind and edify the soul — regardless of someone’s target profession.  But the pressure.

I’d like to suggest that we might be able to arm young adults for their future a little better if we made a few changes in how we talk to them and educate them about work:

  • Separate job from calling, and career from life’s vocation.  I talked about this in some of my other posts.  If we think about careers as verbs rather than static job slots to match and then fill, kids can wrap their minds around the idea that they will probably hold many jobs over the course of their lives, especially when they’re still figuring out what they’d like to do.
  • It’s ok to tell kids they might be president someday, but it would be better to encourage kids to work hard (rather than focus on innate “talent” or ability) and to explore a lot of different kinds of work — mental, physical, emotional aspects of interacting with the world — until they begin to understand more about their own desires & skills.
  • Studies are showing that praising students for working hard or making a real effort can powerfully encourage students, while telling them “you’re so good at math!” actually undermines their ability to excel in that subject.  So instead of focusing students on figure out “what am I good at?” perhaps try to focus their attention on what kinds of big problems or tasks draw their imagination and interest consistently.
  • Get kids out of the classroom and into real workplaces — not in some twisted economic model of education, but in a relational, community-oriented approach to work.  The work we do is for others, not ourselves. Even the most money-driven capitalist 🙂 must recognize that he needs customers, and customers will buy products they need (or think they need).  It would be an excellent investment of student time to encourage them to observe people at work in a variety of professions.  This is also a task for parents, grandparents, extended family, community organizations, scout troops, coaches, youth pastors….
  • Take time to talk with kids and teens about your job, your aspirations, your career path.  How did you become an engineer/doctor/plumber/hair stylist?  Did you expect this would be your life’s work?  Are you happy?
  • Don’t you dare suggest that someone should pick a career based on starting or median salary.  Likewise, don’t gloss over the difficult realities of loving a career that makes no money.
  • Demand a shift  in the school curriculum back toward offering hands-on coursework and vocational training, especially in middle school.  While the idea of a middle schooler wielding a saw is truly scary (if you know anything about the attention span of a 12-year-old), the early teen years are a fantastic time to draw students into a variety of apprenticeships and working with the material world.  Frankly, I’m tired of a general education system that values only “book smarts” and nothing of the tinkering, exploration, and fixing that truly makes America’s economy and innovation happen.
  • Change the content of high school graduation requirements to include a mix of the liberal arts (I’m never giving up on Shakespeare For All!) and practical experience with economics, finance, project-based learning, problem-focused units, and courses in business or design.  It would be ok for students to take 3 years of math + 1 year of computer programming. The world wouldn’t fall down.
  • Reality checks. We’re so committed to making everyone feel included and valued that true honestly sounds like a slap in the face.  Let me offer an analogy:  There are two kinds of grandfathers:  The one who will let his grandson win at checkers, and the one who will kindly wipe the kid off the board in the process of teaching him the game.  The kid with the “tougher” grandfather always ends up being a much better checkers player.  The kid who won all the time is just an insufferable, overconfident asshole.   So there’s a balance – of encouragement to try new things and not take failure too hard, but also to recognize when it’s time to say, “This might not be your best skill.”  Love doesn’t always sound kind, but faithful are the wounds of a friend. Or loving teacher / coach / parent.
  • Lastly, to parents: take the pressure off your kids.  They hear you talk for 18 years about their college career (your college dreams for them).  This is a huge load on the minds of the student who has no idea what he wants to do, who knows that the experimentation alone will cost thousands of dollars. (And often I’ve seen this with boys, who seem to take a few extra years to sort it all out.)  You can shove them into college, but they’re not going to figure it out any faster than the natural course of growing up will take them.  This is hard, but for some students, the biggest gift you can offer is the encouragement to sit out a year and figure stuff out rather than running into freshman year like a lemming.

For what it’s worth.

My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me – Karl Taro Greenfeld – The Atlantic

My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me – Karl Taro Greenfeld – The Atlantic.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink how we’ve structured K-12 school days, the way we ask students to juggle separate subjects, and the whole push toward standardized testing? Maybe? Can I get an amen?

What has changed? It seems that while there has been widespread panic about American students’ falling behind their peers in Singapore, Shanghai, Helsinki, and everywhere else in science and mathematics, the length of the school day is about the same. The school year hasn’t been extended. Student-teacher ratios don’t seem to have changed much. No, our children are going to catch up with those East Asian kids on their own damn time.

Every parent I know in New York City comments on how much homework their children have. These lamentations are a ritual whenever we are gathered around kitchen islands talking about our kids’ schools.

Is it too much?

Well, imagine if after putting in a full day at the office—and school is pretty much what our children do for a job—you had to come home and do another four or so hours of office work. Monday through Friday. Plus Esmee gets homework every weekend. If your job required that kind of work after work, how long would you last?

I’ve been wary of Esmee’s workload, and I’ve often suspected that teachers don’t have any idea about the cumulative amount of homework the kids are assigned when they are taking five academic classes. There is little to no coordination among teachers in most schools when it comes to assignments and test dates.


Sometimes I pretend that disparate ideas can actually belong together in a post if I just throw them all in here….

Ecclesiastes tells us it’s better to go to a funeral than a party but that’s still a hard pill to swallow.

Attended the viewing on Friday of a man I’d not had the pleasure of meeting, though I’d heard a lot of wonderful about him. Cancer took this husband and father of 4 from the world much earlier than we would have wished.

Mused over the barbarous nature of forcing a grieving widow and children to see everyone in the town via a 4-hour marathon.  That’s something I with Southerners would change. My Northern family & friends tend to spread out their grief visitations over 2 -3 days and 4 sessions. Things are more neighborly that way.  As neighborly as you can get at a funeral parlor….

Love is the thing.  Of all the “change agents” that people try to shove into the lives of people around them, the only one that really counts is faith expressing itself through love (to echo Paul’s words in Galatians 5).

There is a sweetness in the life of people who choose to love the messy people around them instead of demanding change, imposing change, enforcing change. You can’t get to someone’s heart through rules, regardless of how destructive you think their behavior is.

There’s a man in my church who worked at Pratt & Whitney on the engines for the SR-71 Blackbird, one of the space vehicles, and the Joint Strike Fighter.  I think that’s pretty cool.  This photo is for him:

SR-71 Blackbird, which greets you when you enter the museum.
SR-71 Blackbird, which greets you when you enter the museum.

Airplanes are sexy. That one is, anyway.

859687_1_ftc_dpBlazed through a book today, Death by Suburb by David Goetz.  *shrugs*  It was pretty good. He attempted several good points about the materialism of American suburban life and the way Christians get distracted by their success-driven search for “immortality symbols.”

He correctly identifies that much we do in the name of Jesus is actually for our own benefit — to make ourselves feel better about the world and our place in it, to satisfy an internal need to avoid guilt by paying lip service to community service or mission work, to gain social advantage.  But his suggested solutions struck me as kind of equally kitschy. The chapters center on what he calls 8 spiritual disciplines …. but really the chapters are just full of anecdotes and what seem to me to be random quotes from either a medieval mystic or CS Lewis.

I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend the book, but if you know of someone who’s blithely living apart from any actual comprehension of how white suburban Christianity is tied to American materialism, maybe this is worth a read for them.

SupperMuch better reading comes in the form of Robert Farrar Capon’s delightful theology-cum-cookbook The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Delivered into my hands as a well-chosen Christmas gift by a friend, I have savored every word. (Pun intended.)

Capon loved cooking – in his Scandinavian-flavored way – and he grasped the sweeping narrative of Redemption history, seeing it in the bones of our existence.  I know it sounds strange, but you haven’t enjoyed the beauty of spiritual reflection until you’ve thrown in a recipe for roast lamb and read about how to pick a good cleaver.

I will leave you intrigued. 🙂

Visited the Due South Coffee Company – finally! – this Saturday, as part of a much-needed trek for rest and not-work. Check out this beautiful place:

An abandoned mill rescued for artistry & coffee - perfect!
An abandoned mill rescued for artistry & coffee – perfect!

Hamster Wheels.

Is it just me, or are my fellow bloggers also weary of the hamster wheel of self-promotion and social media content marketing?

Having a personal brand is all the rage these days.  Meanwhile Buffer, a tool similar to Hootsuite, reminds me each week that I haven’t “buffered” any tweets or Facebook posts to push people to my blog content.  Other bloggers – including my favorite reads like John Spencer and Michael Doyle  and Pernille Ripp – tweet merrily what they’re reading and saying and thinking.

My friends John Ellis and Joffre the Giant (who’s even rocking a Patreon campaign) and Erin Russ are writing amazing posts about their lives and thoughts.

And I struggle to get more than two sentences to rub together once I get home from work.  Or so it seems this year.

I got my start in blogging on Xanga back in the merry 2005, back when blogging audiences were scattered among a wider variety of platforms, some centered on different kinds of audiences and purposes.  You could post poetry on Pathetic, indulge in diary entries and gossip on LiveJournal, write stories on Xanga, be a “real” blogger on Blogspot or Blogger.  Communities on each platform tended to be a little closer since the audiences were smaller.

And I knew a good 20-30 people right here in the Upstate who were all writing and sharing on the Xanga platform, so conversation erupted all the time.  People got mad, wrote diatribes, gossiped, and occasionally connected or learned or challenged me to change my views radically.

I really liked that world a few years ago when a small, tight clutch of readers logged into Xanga once in a while to see what the others had said, thought about it, said a few things in response, and carried on with life.  It wasn’t all-consuming like Facebook later became; we weren’t all glued to smartphone screens and unable to carry on uninterrupted conversations.

The hamster wheel of personal branding, tweeting, social media content marketing – it’s wearing me out.

I don’t need to feel guilty because I don’t write 3x a week or have time to unravel every stray thought into a post.

I don’t want to jump all over myself because the Teaching Redemptively blog doesn’t get a lot of love or content, despite my honest desire to fill a huge gap in the conversation about how the Gospel should be forming educational practice.  But it does seem foolish to let months go by without investing time and thought into my primary research/content field.

And I wish I didn’t feel sad that the big shiny world of WordPress means fewer comments, more commodification, less connection. But it does. At least for me.

Sorry for the downer.  It’s September.


Hamlet shirt redux

I rabbit-trailed into tweaking the one shirt design of mine on Zazzle that consistently sells a few shirts each year.

That and my WWTD (What Would Tartuffe Do?) mug, a personal favorite ironic joke of mine.

Anyway, the 2007 NCS production of Hamlet was a high point in my experience working with high school theater, and I love to see the cast shirts walking around on the bodies of NCS graduates.

at the Marine museum near Quantico, VA.  Looking fierce. And Hamlet.
Trying out a soldiers pack at the Marine museum near Quantico, VA. Looking fierce. And Hamlet.

Mine, a long-sleeved edition, comes out every fall once the weather turns chilly. It’s getting a bit tattered, so maybe I should order a reprint. (Zazzle doesn’t seem to offer quite the same quality of ink as it did in the past, but it’s the only way to print transparent .png graphics on a shirt without going through a whole bunch of rigamarole to get a similar design ready for a screen printing.)

It’s an old design, and ham-handed. I can’t say that I’m proud of this design, per se, but it was one of my earliest (and in collaboration with a fellow artist), and represents one of my early steps in developing an understanding of the digital tools.

So.  If you have a hankering to remember Hamlet at NCS, try this.

And I suggest adding a great Hamlet quote to the back — mine reads “There is a divinity that shapes man’s ends, rough-hew them how we will,” a line from Act V.


Hamlet Shirt Redux
Hamlet Shirt Redux by loriramey
Find other Hamlet T-Shirts at