As a professor at Yale, Bill Deresiewicz saw something that troubled him deeply. His students, some of the nation’s brightest minds, were adrift when it came to the big questions: how to think critically and creatively, and how to find a sense of purpose.
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is a groundbreaking manifesto for people searching for the kind of insight on leading, thinking, and living that elite schools should be—but aren’t—providing.
What are you good at? What do you care about? What do you believe in?
Lara Galinsky, the author of Work On Purpose, speaks of the importance of asking such questions at ‘points of inflection,’ the junctures in life when you’re making a choice about what to do next.
Self-knowledge is the most practical thing in the world, because it helps you find your way to a career that’s right for you.
[bluebox]Vocation is Latin for calling: it means the thing you’re called to do. It isn’t something that you choose, in other words; it chooses you. You have to do the work to make yourself receptive to it. To find yourself, you first must free yourself. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about. [/bluebox]
Innovation is all the rage these days
You can invent a device or a drug or an app, but you can also invent your life. Instead of following a path, you can make your own path.
There is artistic imagination, and scientific imagination, but there is also such a thing as moral imagination–“moral” meaning, not right or wrong per se, but having to do with the making of choices in the broadest sense. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new alternativas for how to live.
When you walk into an elite college, you are offered a choice between medicine, finance, consulting, and maybe a few other things, but you do not have to order from that menu, either. You can even turn around and leave and think it over for a while.
Moral imagination is hard
It is hard in a completely different way that the hard things that elite students are used to doing. You can’t study for it. You can’t compete for it. The qualities it calls upon are those of character, not intellect. It’s never easy, and not only that, it’s never enough.
You also need courage, moral courage, the bravery to act on your imagination in the face of what your family and friends are going to say to try to stop you. Because they’re not going to like it. The morally courageous person tends to make the individuals around him very uncomfortable. He doesn’t fit with the ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and he makes them insecure about the choices they themselves have made–or failed to make.
Am I being self-indulgent if…
I major in philosophy instead of something more practical? Isn’t it self-indulgent to try to live the life of the mind when there are so many other things I could be doing with my degree? I want to travel for a while after I graduate, but wouldn’t that be self-indulgent?
These are the kinds of questions that young people find themselves being asked today if they even think about doing something a little different–even worse, the kinds that they are made to feel compelled to ask themselves.
We like to think of ourselves as a wealthy country, but it is one of the great testaments to the intellectual–and moral, and spiritual–poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel that they are being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity.
How do you find your vocation–or as people like to say today, your passion?
That can be the hardest question that young people face, especially after being trained to think exclusively in terms of the next immediate goal. There are no easy answers, but here are a few suggestions.
- Do for work what you do spontaneously–or did spontaneously, back when you were younger, before all the spontaneity got beaten out of you.
- Do what you would choose to do anyway, even if you didn’t get rewarded for it.
- Do the thing that you can immerse yourself inside for hours at a time. You know the thing you wish you could do, instead of what you’re doing now? Just do that thing.
- Do what you love to do the most: no, not that–not what you think you love, or think you ought to love, but what you really do love.
Complement Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life with Pursue Life, Liberty, and Meaningfulness. Finding a higher purpose in life is considered the ultimate existential and philosophical goal.