Students Uncovering “What’s Next?”

by Jennifer Manlowe, PhD

“Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.”—Aristotle

Believing that each one us has within us a unique blueprint for our destinies is quite a grand proposition to consider. But this is what Socrates—the father of Western philosophy—taught his pupils’ and this is why he resisted the mantel of teacher —”one who shows”—and called himself, instead, a “midwife” (the name for his mother’s particular vocation).

For more than a decade of teaching at the university level, I have invited career-anxious students to consider the perennial philosophies that say, “Vocation is not a means of survival in the world—it is the pure expression of our essence.” I urge students to imagine a time when the majority of citizens believed that “Vocation arises, not as the response to external forces, but authentically within our own being.” The students’ eyes roll back into their heads right on cue. I remind them that Western civilization has relied on these Greek philosophies for much of our cultural direction and it cannot hurt them to learn why this is so.

Especially at the end of the spring semester, it didn’t seem to matter whether I was teaching at a large University, an Ivy League or a small College in rural Georgia, students stumbled into my office to let me know that they were frantic about finding work. One young woman said, “Dr. Manlowe, my parents are freaking out and pressuring me to get a job so I can begin paying back my student loans!”

Another student said, “I’m a senior this year and still haven’t declared a major. I guess I’ve been putting off the inevitable.” One young man told me, “I know internships are a good idea but I’m afraid I won’t pick the right one and even worse, I’m scared how the extra demands will affect my grade-point average!”

The pressure is on students from all backgrounds and even worse upon those who think a college education is all they need in their efforts to create a viable future—one full of meaning, reward, satisfaction and job security.

Of late, more students than ever have seen their stressed-out parents downsized, disgruntled and discouraged. Journalist Tim Johnston recently went out on the market and became quite discouraged after weeks of concerted effort to land a job. He writes: “The recession and the general numbing effect of the events of Sept. 11 have created a buyer’s market in which I’m one of 8,000 candidates for almost any job. Everyone also seems a little depressed, unsure and suspicious because of the new circumstances.”

Chronic uncertainty in the general job market makes finding work you love or even finding work at all increasingly difficult, especially in these globally mobile times.

Why wouldn’t students feel dispirited and deflated when they hear their grandparents say, “In my day, I checked the Want Ads and called the boss to see if there was still an opening. I was thick-skinned and shrugged off the rejections until I got a ‘Yes!’ I wanted to better myself and support a family someday. I didn’t wait for the perfect job because ANY job that would pay me was the perfect job!”

Hearing students’ experiences has helped me realize that “uncovering their vocational essence” can feel like a luxury that only the offspring of royalty can afford (both in time and money). They’ve helped me to see over my Ivory Tower and onto the mundane pavement that they now must pound in a daily way. They want to find work they don’t hate that pays them more than their former jobs as espresso baristas, fast-food fry cooks or grocery cashiers.

Most students I’ve encountered want employment just as much as their grandparents did in “their day,” but studies show that it no longer pays to throttle would-be employers with cold calls, generic cover letters and unsolicited resumes. Increasingly, companies want future employees to know what specific values (unique gifts and talents) they might add to their workplace.

“For more than 20 years running,” says the Gallup Management Journal, “Stryker—a company specializing in surgical and medical devices—has delivered at least 20% organic growth annually. It attributes this achievement largely to recruiting people who have the right innate talents to drive the business forward.”

Could Aristotle still be right? Is our “essential contribution,” –that ‘something’ unique to us that calls itself forward as an offering to the world,” proving to be worthwhile knowledge in more ways than one? Time invested upfront with a vocational guide, while students are still in High School or college, may be worth its weight in gold (a commodity that is also fluctuating in value).

Not long ago, school counselors were commonly relied upon for this kind of guidance. They offered students personality questionnaires and assessment devices that slotted them under “career titles” which, more often than not, were a surprise to the student.

I know I was aghast to discover that I would make a great “engineer.” “Huh?” I thought. Now I know that self-knowledge is hard to come by when a machine or a questionnaire is the only listening device. Hearts and dreams alongside natural skills and talents need to be explored and uncovered in trustworthy relationships. We need mentors, tutors, counselors who aren’t merely running students through the career-assessment mill.

The Sage is not born but made in right relationship.–Confucius

More people are finding a way to invest in their future by turning to Life Coaches — something comedian Jon Stewart has made fun of recently by calling them “those non-credentialed people who act like you’re their friend but make you pay them to encourage you.”

Not all of the people who do this are so facile. There are people like myself and companies like who focus on helping people in transition to cultivate insights that prepare them for a different kind of workplace—“one where it pays to be aligned, engaged and integrated.”_ _Most people I’ve encountered want to be paid well but really do “want more than just a paycheck.” They want a life that they feel good about, one where they feel useful, appreciated and purposeful. Getting the help of a good listener (coach or counselor) to gain such clarity can only help.

We are all learning by experience that it takes more than New Age promises of material abundance or that transitioning to our “highest good” is as easy as Seven or Eight Steps—even for those of us who are “Highly Effective!” What I have found to be true again and again is that we all benefit from having a vocational companion to help us follow through with the necessary footwork to convert our interests, strengths and talents into “a living” that is practical and rewarding.

Navigating the real world with all its decisions, responsibilities and opportunities isn’t easy and not one of us is incompetent for wanting some professional support.

Making a decision about “what’s next?” means taking a good look at our own passions, values and life circumstances. Factoring in both our authentic dreams and our realities (and keeping in mind that this first choice won’t necessarily dictate the entire course of our lives) will help us figure out how we want to spend our time and what will help us feel engaged and nourished in the near future. No matter what, clarifying our consciously chosen path is a legitimate part of our ongoing education regarding our life’s particular purpose. As Lao Tsu says, “Knowing others is wisdom, knowing ourselves is Enlightenment.”

Essay written by Life Design Unlimited founder and author, Jennifer L. Manlowe, Ph.D.