Talking with young people about career and calling

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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.


  1. The idea of teaching limitless possibility is a blatant disregard of True Self, and unique purpose in individuals. My mom always used to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be. I used to get in huge arguments over this with her from the time I was very young to well into my college years. It was one of the most infuriating things to hear, for me. I didn’t want to do whatever I wanted, because I didn’t know what I wanted. I needed someone to help me understand what I was good at, and what God designed me to be. I don’t think parents, teachers or many friends of mine ever helped me figure that out until I met my life coach. In turn, I felt like my life was aimless, and had no meaning. I felt lost and constantly angry. The ability to help someone find their True Self, and lead them to their purpose in life is a very rare and valuable gift. I wish more people understood this idea and thought in terms of purpose, not possibility. Possibility doesn’t come until AFTER we find purpose, because then the possibilities are realistic, and within our reach. Good article.


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