In the last week, two aspiring lawyers told me about their fears of being trapped in jobs that will prevent them from traveling or experiencing other things, or could lead them to change their values, being initially motivated to help people but ultimately focusing on money and job preservation.
Teachers have told me about their worries they may become deadbeats, no longer passionately
engaged after years of being reigned in by rules that hardly seem designed to benefit students.
In college, one of the things I learned, and probably every successful student learns, was how to determine which assignments actually needed to be completed and which could be easily ignored.
As I strolled through my final semester of college — I didn’t have a full course load and the classes I had took me into the campus woods, into a science lab to make wine and around the city to write for the school paper — I wasn’t too keen on completing homework assignments.
Yet in my senior seminar class, the one where we sat in the woods for a few hours each week, we were supposed to read Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke, and I found myself rapturously reading and rereading parts of the 10-letter series. The class was designed to help us contemplate vocation after college, and one line in particular hit home.
Sometimes I find myself in a great mood for no reason, and when I stop to think about it realize its because the sun is out for the first time in a few days.
“Wait patiently to see whether your innermost life feels hemmed in by the form this profession imposes,” Rilke wrote towards the end of the fourth letter.
I promptly took out a pen and wrote the quote in the back of my planner so I could reference it later. As I thought more about the concept of vocation, both for the class and as the specter of graduating became more real, Rilke’s words of caution may have been the most important advice I was given.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid being shaped by the institutions in which we participate. Our jobs, families, homes and so many other factors leave indelible marks on our lives and sense of self, often in ways we don’t even realize. Our conditions are like the air we breathe, so all encompassing and obvious it’s easy not to identify directly.
Sometimes I find myself in a great mood for no reason, and when I stop to think about it realize its because the sun is out for the first time in a few days. The tolls of work and everyday life can have the opposite affect, gently chafing away at our sanity even if we aren’t conscious of it.
Ironically we go to work to exchange our labor for wages, allowing us to survive and hopefully improve our quality of lives, but as I reread Rilke’s quote, I think about the way jobs have slowly eroded my sense of self worth, mental health and quality of life.
And that’s how I knew I wanted to be a journalist — I finally found something that was fulfilling and meaningful, a workplace where I didn’t have to decompress for hours after a shift.
When I was a student, and for a while after I graduated, I thought I knew what I wanted to do for work. With a few setbacks, I was able to land two jobs in the nonprofit sector, working on community-based social change initiatives in Greensboro.
Both were good jobs, by all of the conventional measurements. I was paid well, had flexible hours and was doing something I cared about, so I felt spoiled complaining about them and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy.
This is what I thought I wanted to do, but the more I turned it over in my head the more I returned to Rilke’s quote. The institutions I was participating in were molding me in ways I had no desire to be shaped, and even though both were “good jobs” I started to craft an exit strategy.
That’s how I ended up here. Happiness and success aren’t static measurements or states of being that we attain; they are a constant process. Rilke advised the eager young poet that the career might not be all he expects, highlighting the need to constantly reevaluate his ambitions and how he defined success.
Sometimes the institutions and people in our lives try to redefine our priorities, principles and objectives for us, but at least sometimes, if we are vigilant, we can stay true to ourselves in spite of conflicting pressures.
In some cases, it means being aware of the tension and pushing back; other times it means finding a way to get out. It’s not about whether you are nervous about where you are headed or already are, the point is to avoid complacency, to regularly check in on your wellbeing and to be open to the option of changing course for the sake of your innermost life.