My friend tipped me off to this column written by David Brooks, It’s Not About You. I agree with much of what Brooks usually writes, and I thought this was a very good piece. Right on the money on many issues. One small part struck me as not quite right. Even though I agree that many people look outside and find a problem that summons their life, I’d a resist the leap to the other side of the coin and affirm what seems to be existentialism. When he says, “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling,” I take that to be a little more of an affirmation of existentialism than what I think is good for people.
I think it takes both a look at the problems that compel you and a look at the self to see if you are a good fit to even tackle those problems. I think that is more ideal and leads to less dissatisfaction when you find out you did not have the gifts and skills and personality to handle some problem that captured your attention. I think our calling is both derivative of who we are, the experiences we have as well as the compelling circumstances that present themselves to us. When someone says they are working out of their strengths, I think this is similar to what I’m getting at. I’d much rather have some identification of what those are and then match those with the problems that capture me. None of what I’m saying should detract from us also being able to grow and develop and particularly work on weaknesses we have in a variety of areas ranging from our own personal character to skills needed for particular problems or jobs. But, I am saying that at the onset of the important choices that confront us in contributing to the world, it is important to reflect on who it is we are. What are my strengths and weaknesses? What kind of personality do I have? Are there any particular gifts, talents and abilities that are unique to me and that I bring to the table that match well with problems now and in the past? What are my range of passions and things that don’t compel me? What unique experiences have I had that have formed and shaped me? What unique contributions have my family and close friends given to me? I’d also add that religious truths about who we are and the purpose and place we have in the world are a necessary factor to consider.
I’m a little torn on some of this because on one hand I think we (parents, education, religious institutions, etc.) don’t do a good job of helping young people be reflective and understand themselves, but on the other hand the world is pretty complex and getting more complex, so young people are confronted with a lot even at the exit of college. I think these are a couple of the contributory factors that lead to the postponement of what many psychologists consider adulthood to the late 20’s and early 30’s. So, I think we need to do better at helping them understand better who they are, but also challenge them to explore a variety of experiences particularly in college and post-graduation to see what is the best fit to bring their fledgling selves to and begin to develop into satisfying the calling that fits some essence and strengths of who they are.