It recently occurred to my wife and I that we will have four children attending college this coming fall. Setting aside our concerns over how they will afford tuition, books, and housing, our greatest hope is that they will each make wise choices regarding their future.
A free, democratic society offers citizens great latitude in choosing educational and career paths. My children are extremely fortunate to have been raised in a stable, middle-class family within strong communities. They’ve attended exceptional secondary schools in Massachusetts, California, and Utah. Each of these schools has given them opportunities to develop their talents and to pursue a wide ranges of interests inside and outside the classroom.
Upon entering college, students discover the freedom and responsibility to become whoever they want to become. This freedom can be both exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. Should they choose a stable, well-defined profession such as teaching, medicine, business, or the law? Or should they simply pursue a broad liberal arts education with more definite career choices to follow? How will the prospects of marriage and family responsibilities impact educational and career paths?
I firmly believe that every person possesses unique gifts that can only be developed through strenuous effort and refined through adversity. William James, the father of modern psychology, speaks of the challenge each of us face in realizing our potential: “Every one knows on any given day that there are energies slumbering in him which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which he might display if these were greater. Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a sort of cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.”
So what is the cure for slumbering energies and indecisiveness? The answer lies in our ability to make firm commitments. Regardless of the educational path they choose, successful college students know that realizing their potential requires both short- and long-term commitments. The freedom to choose one path implies the need to abandon other paths. After exploring their options, mature students make a decision and then commit themselves to the long and arduous path toward self-mastery. In addition to completing degree programs and mastering skills, vital commitments include securing the happiness of a spouse and fulfilling parental responsibilities.
Ralph Waldo Emerson compares the power of personal commitment to the well-established order of nature: “And so I think that the last lesson of life, the choral song which rises from all elements and all angels, is a voluntary obedience, a necessitated freedom. Man is made of the same atoms as the world is; he shares the same impressions, predispositions, and destiny. When his mind is illuminated, when his heart is kind, he throws himself joyfully into the sublime order, and does, with knowledge, what the stones do by structure.”
Ideally, students discover an educational and career path that coincides with a clear life purpose, a sense of their personal calling. Emerson suggests that our true vocation is one that maximizes our freedom and empowers us to do what only we are capable of doing. He describes how such a calling invites us “to endless exertion,” where “all obstruction is taken away” as we “sweep serenely over a deepening channel into an infinite sea.”
How can we know that we’ve discovered our personal calling? Emerson claims that each of us has “one direction in which all space is open” to us. Some people possess a clear sense of this direction from a very young age. Others need more time to consider their options. And some are forced to reconsider after becoming frustrated with unfulfilling vocations.
Winding career paths don’t necessarily mean people are indecisive or aimless. It may simply mean that they have been willing to take advantage of new opportunities to learn and grow, to pursue their personal calling wherever it may lead. As long as their lives are grounded in firm commitments, they will discover unexpected success along the way. I have a friend who has struggled to begin a side business with a full-time job and heavy family responsibilities. To accomplish his goal, he made and fulfilled a commitment to wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m.
Purposeful commitment means that we embrace both freedom and responsibility. Rather than being driven by the need for constant entertainment, we find fulfillment through service to others. Rather than being controlled by negative emotion, we find pleasure in disciplined habits. And rather than escaping responsibility through mind-altering drugs or digital dependence, we use our freedom to make the world a better place to live and learn.