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Achievement: Education vs. Credentialing

Last weekend was an interesting one. My son and I spent the weekend together and I noticed a deeply reflective look on his face. As I mentioned before in previous entries, my son is in a four-year Commerce Program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. The reflective look, as I knew it would be, was the look of wondering about his path in life. Essentially, the key question boiled down to, "Am I on my path or somebody else's path?" I knew his thoughts and feelings were not merely about his education. They originated from a much deeper source: "The first function is awakening in the individual a sense of awe and mystery and gratitude for the ultimate mystery of being. (Joseph Campbell)." It was, I believe, in fact a point of awakening within...

At an early age my son has always had a natural affinity with making things. I suppose this is a natural inclination of many children and that learning at that point in life is unavoidably tied to the acts of making and doing. Exploration and discovery are assumptions to a child, yet our social systems turn these natural inclinations into a controlled series of goals and objectives. I mentioned some of my memories of him in his childhood - his natural tendencies toward making and doing. This contrasted to his current situation of being made and being done by the forces of society. In other words, his intuition was quite literally screaming at him and demanding attention.

One of the traits I have tried as best I can to instill in both my children is to unify their inner passions and drive in life with their career. Consideration of our passions in life - the things that naturally energize us, the things that we naturally tend toward, the things we do because we have a felt need to do them - is a prerequisite to consideration of a career and work. Unfortunately, I believe, our social system has inverted this proposal so that consideration of what our careers and work will be is often made in the absence or, at least, in the weak presence of our inner passion. Joseph Campbell referred to this passion as "bliss."

With respect to a career and work, it seems to me that if we are following our bliss a career and the work we do are sources of energy and constant revitalization. In the presence of bliss, we grow stronger as individuals on a personal level and on a community (giving) level. If we are not following our bliss, a career and work can seem like a virtual prison that traps us in routines and processes that literally sap energy and revitalization from our being. Simply, a career and work in the absence of our own unique bliss is a recipe for exhaustion and confusion.

My son's questionning focused not on determining a career path for there are a number of career paths he could easily follow. His questions were decidedly focused on his life path - something far greater in scope than a career or work. I mentioned the idea of bliss to him and that, in my opinion, we as a society are making a fundamental mistake. And that mistake is the idea of encouraging, if not forcing, people to make career decisions that will occupy forty or more years of their life based on social expectations and job market requirements. The source of career design and work is ultimately our life path, not imposed social expectations. Living a life and building a career based on some shallow conceptions of success will clearly lead to unhappiness and a sense of loss, if not illness itself. In other words, a career and the work we do within that career is simply a by-product of something far greater and far more powerful - our inner passion for the mystery of life itself.

He clearly identified that he has a deep passion for history - especially ancient history. And he has always been a voracious reader of myth and fantasy - the idea of how civilizations havve been and might be constructed is clearly a passion for him. He identified a professor in an elective he had taken at McMaster that seemed to share his passion. So of course I said, "Phone him. Go talk to him." Moreover, he identified the fact that when he is "studying" (i.e. - exploring and discovering things about ancient civilizations) his concept of work was one that energized him and provided fuel for his soul. Work, in this context, did not result in feeling tired.

Of course, it was time to return to Jospeh Campbell, an individual I had mentioned to my son before (planting seeds) but one that, until now, he was not quite ready to explore. I described Campbell's life in general terms and I could see a glint in my son's eyes. I read some sections from "Pathways to Bliss" to him and suggested he take the book - he has. "The answer to your questions about your life," I told him, "are already within you. They will not be found outside of yourself, but joining in the conversation with others of like spirit is invaluable."

We also discussed the different between being educated and being credentialed. It is all too obvious to say that receiving a degree and being educated are two entirely different propositions. And in our present day we live in a time when degrees are frankly a dime a dozen. In Dark Ages Ahead Jane Jacobs comments, "... student enrollment statistics have become the unofficial appendix to stock market performance." If this is the case, and I suspect there is validity to it, then higher education has indeed started entering a dark age. A degree, then, is denigrated to the function of currency. She goes on to comment,

Far from elevating credentialing above educating, they (university administrators) were sweepingly enlarging the idea of educating to embrace whatever skills seemed needed, from cost-benefit analysis to marketing.

If we are to embrace education in its most important sense, we must then help our youth to understand that this obsession with credentialing is in fact a recipe for unhappiness and within it is the possibility of living a life far removed from our own unique inner passion. The path that links education to stock market performance is, quite frankly, pathetic and inexcusable and I like the fact that Jane has used the word "credentialing" as a means to rescue the heart of education from economic imprisonment.

As for my son - we'll see what he does. Clearly, he is not willing to become driven by the economy while at the same time he wishes to make a contribution to the people in his life. I believe his understanding of a career and of work have been refocused as things that are not derived from a particular degree (although I suspect he has always known this), but as apsects of life that originate in some deeper sense of felt meaning. One of his more interesting comments was (paraphrased), "I'm not willing to spend the next forty-five years of my life being unhappy."

The first function is awakening in the individual a sense of awe and mystery and gratitude for the ultimate mystery of being. (Joseph Campbell).

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Justin - thanks. What a pleasant surprise indeed:-) I'm going to take your comment and explore it in the next entry.

A very well written summary of our conversation this past weekend.

My dad’s fourth paragraph sums up very well what I was previously feeling, and what I am now feeling in light of this revelation. For the past two and a half years I've been playing a game with myself. That game has been to try and free up as much time away from my 'career' as possible while still succeeding. It was going well, but the past few months spent working full time and researching 'careers' have led me to a conclusion that was inevitable from the start – that was one game I could not win. Be it tomorrow, next year, or forty years from now, I will have to wake up in the morning faced with what I have to do on that day - a thought that scared me last week. A thought I’m very grateful had such an impact on me.

The comments posted have led my thoughts down a (perhaps) more important route – Why? Why did I let this happen? Why was I convinced that the very wrong path I had laid out for myself was the right choice? Why did it take me this long to realize it was the wrong path? Now, these are very easy questions for me to answer.

This all stems back to the ridiculous age of 16 - the age that the government of Ontario has decided for us all that we must start thinking about our ‘careers’. It starts with a short course worth half a credit that they appropriately named “Career Studies”. The purpose of the course was to fill out aptitude tests and browse career cruising websites so we could find careers that were ‘right’ for us. Of course, the definition of ‘right’ used was just plain wrong. Filling out a standardized test and looking up careers based on it makes absolutely no sense. This course is made compulsory to any student shooting for that diploma. This is preparation for what comes next – selecting our courses for grade 11. This is when we’re expected to decide what we’d like to do with our lives. From here, they hit us with two phrases: career and options.

From a very young age all of us are encouraged to think along the lines of a career. All of us have our dream jobs when we’re young. Personally, I went back and forth between police officer and lawyer when I was young. Lawyer? Oh boy… Anyway, from there, the education system engrains in our minds that a career is all about job security, salaries and the size of our homes. It’s this line of thinking that is heavy in our thoughts when we decide our futures.

For those of us who have succumbed to the fear of not having a solid career, the idea of ‘options’ is presented. I think back to a guidance appointment I had in grade 11. It was clear my passion was history, and I knew I would take as many history courses as I could in my final year of high school. That much was decided. Then the councillor hit me with it: “What if I change my mind?” I hadn’t given it much thought at that point. He encouraged me to take Calculus and Data Management in grade 12, as this would allow me to go into business if I changed my mind. I was always a good math student, and I didn’t have to sacrifice the history courses I enjoyed, so why not? A year later I gave in and made what could have been the biggest mistake of my young life: I applied to a commerce programme in the name of a career.

There is clearly some very powerful socialization going on at far too young an age within our education system. I agree that this is creating a very unhealthy society, indeed.

Myth and fantasy has been a part of me in more ways than I can count since March 5, 1996 when I was given my first Dragonlance book for my birthday. It’s no coincidence I was given another on March 5, 2005. This is what I want to do with my life, and I’m going to do it despite any obstacles. I’m beginning to see this clearly, and I count myself among the lucky to have come to this realization now and not forty years from now.

I’ve started reading Pathways to Bliss and have already gained a great deal of respect for Joseph Campbell. To me it’s just an added bonus that his bliss and my own are interrelated (he also has an avid interest in mythology). This is the ideology that should be taught in schools. I know from this point forward I’ll be doing what I find fulfilling. I’ve already started the process of switching my major come this September, and the Humanities department at McMaster welcomed me with open arms to history. Going through the course calendar I ran into the problem of there being more history courses I want to take than I have room for at the moment. I laughed.

“My son was able to turn the tables back on me - but that is another discussion altogether.”

I don’t know about that…

Hi Aaron,

Thanks for that. The confusion our youth face is very significant and, unfortunately, is quite well crafted. You are one of the lucky ones it seems to me - to find your path so early in life. This is something I want for both of my kids - in fact, if I could only help them with one thing in life this would be it.

Nice phrase: "Joy in the midst of hardship while following the call."

Hi Rob,

Hopefully your son, regardless of money, will never turn from his path. Undoubtedly there will be pressures to do so, but the subsequent pressures, and penalties, from the the turning away would be far more severe.

"Never have I known such fear."

I suspect that this is very good thing indeed. We all have a tendency to stay with the familiar, the known, since for some reason feear likes to delude us into thinking that it is somehow easier to stay with what we have rather than make a change into the unfamiliar - even if the unfamiliar is better for us. Like those inmates, we all have a tendency to remain in society, that is, to be accepted by society on its terms rather than allowing society to accept us on our own terms.

I have a very clear understanding regarding your comment about consulting. It's not something I could back to either.

Interesting parallel - you and I have faith in our sons, but less so in ourselves. My son was able to turn the tables back on me - but that is another discussion altogether. At the same time, there is no reason - absolutely no reason - why we shouldn't enbrace the same - otherwise we're just teachers - not mentors.

Hi Cyn,
Very interesting parallels. One of the things my son mentioned was that he felt as if he had not made the best use of his time to this point, and that he should have made this kind of decision earlier. My response was, "We are all in exactly the place we need to be in, even if we don't want to be in it."

However, how we attend to these moments in our lives is key. It has something to do with a kind of awakening I think - a realization, sudden or gradual, that there is a different path we're meant to be on. A path that originates deep within - one that has been speaking to us all the time.

But much of what happens to us pulls us away from this and is often presented under the guise of superficially hopeful notions such as, "Preparing to become a valuable member of society." What if the society itself is sick - ill - depraved - or just plain stupid? Society, it seems, promotes creativity, inidividuality, personal expression, self-directed learing, and so on, as long as it fits in with the mandate of society.

We are beginning to see more and more people stepping outside of societal expectations and stepping back inside themselves. This is a good thing indeed and speaks to what Campbell has been telling us. Yet, many more live lives of quiet desperation, and others a not-so-quiet desperation.

It's sad to consider that many never attend to this inner voice, not because they can't, but because they are so busy attending to the demands of everyday life that their own inner voice can't be heard for all the surrounding noise.

This questions of, "How do people learn the things they value most?" cannot, I think, be addressed in the absence bliss.

Brian...thanks for sharing this. Reading Joseph Campbell as a confused 21-year-old was a pivotal moment in my decision to follow my bliss instead of someone else's path. I wish I had been exposed to more conversations with people on the path bliss at the time, which I think would have been both comforting and stimulating at the same time. Having experienced joy in the midst of hardship while following the call, I can totally agree with Campbell's claim that if you follow your bliss, whether you have money or not, you still have your bliss. It's very true.

Dear Brian
Synchronistic indeed! My son and I are going through this together right now. He has been very "successful" in being paid huge sums of money to be a commercial artist. His fear is that he will be turned off his path of being an artist.

I cannot be consultant any more. I too have been distanced from my path as an actor in my own life - the doer rather than than the advisor. The individual rather than the role player.

Never have I known such fear.

For years I have used the story that Frankl tells of the gates of the camp being open and the guards gone and yet the inmates stay inside. The camp is all they know and freedom is but a word and the outside seems more terrible than the death camp. It is fully realized for me now. No longer a "story" but my own choice.

The irony is that I have more faith in my son than in myself

You have once again, in a most synchronistic way, hit the nail on the head. This very topic has been the focus for our family as well, on so many different levels. Perhaps beginning with the fact the our province is revamping our Health Department, of which my husband, Wayne, is employed. He is now in the midst of dealing with the loss of his 'job'. Both he and our daughter, who graduated from university 2 weeks ago, are warding off the dreadful question, "so what are you going to do with your life now?"

It's an odd question to ask. It implies that the person wasn't 'doing' anything before. Not living and searching and breathing. Not having one's bliss at the core.

It is sad to hear young people talk about how their univeristy degree will get them this and that. That a 4.0 GPA is the only thing that can get them into their chosen career. We are not in a real world right now. There is the belief that it is better to start your career at the top. The idea of working along side someone who teaches you the ins and outs has gone by the wayside. The ironic thing is that nobody really starts olff at the top and most end up 'on the line'.

Factory life has killed us. Charlottetown, like many capital cities, is riddled with bureaucrats who are dropping like flies. Having heart attacks before the age of 50, spiraling into depression. People who contribute to the economy but with empty hearts and toxic families. What kind of economy is that? Who does it serve?

On a personal note, Wayne and I are thankful we have been paying attention to our passions and subsequent 'work lives'. There are no signs of despair as Wayne makes another shift in his 'work'. 12 years ago he 'awakened' to another way of life and chose to leave the 'heart attack' job with the feds and step out on his own. He has shifted a few times since and is now alive, breathing, playing his music, listening to his heart and generally spending his time doing the things that bring him joy.

We can only ask ourselves 'who we are' when we strip away the shit, so to speak. We can't know who we are and what we love until we take the plunge. The examples of our own lives and how we live them are the most powerful messages and bits of advice we can give to our children. What a great thing it is when we are able to present them with real life.

Thanks for the great post. You have inspried me to talk the 'bliss' talk with my daughter.

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