Leaving The Field: An Idiosyncratic Guide to Reinvention — Part 2B
Bliss and Passion
Part 2B: Search — Looking for Passion in our ‘What’
The yellow cab slipped through a rainy Manhattan night many years ago. Inside its steamed interior, one of my goddaughters and I talked earnestly about reinvention although I’m not sure that I was yet using that term. This was sometime in the fuzzy 1980s and somewhere below the old World Trade Center. She expressed her disappointment at the very good banking job she accepted right out of a stellar college career. Rising to the top of the corporate ladder, being marked as a future master of the financial universe, was not thrilling her, and it wasn’t just because she stood on the bottom rung. The work failed to spark joy or curiosity or excitement, which were all important elements to my niece. But she wasn’t sure what she should pursue as an alternate. After listening to this tale, I drew a large circle in the fogged passenger window: “think of this as the sphere holding all of the things you could pursue”, I said. Then I pressed a single dot into that circle’s center and invoking Joseph Campbell told my goddaughter to ‘follow your bliss’.
She did. Christine became the award-winning, student lauded, tenured college English professor she is today. It took many years, but that bliss directed her. I’ve since given that advice many other times because Joseph Campbell’s text The Hero’s Journey from which it is taken made a difference for me and it made a difference for my niece. (And where Campbell is concerned, it cancels out some things he got very wrong .[i]) Like the myths that book explores, the meaning depends usually upon the intentions of the reader. If your reinvention intention is to explore the ‘what’ to match the ‘why’ of a journey into a new field, considering your ‘bliss’ is advantageous. When we seek to leave one field, we may not have a North Star to guide us to the next one, but we do have questions to inform us. ‘What is your bliss?’ is one of those questions. The full quote from Campbell is instructive:
“If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” Campbell is telling us in this and throughout his other valuable book, The Power of Myth, to be aware. Joan Konner who produced those Bill Moyers sessions that catapulted Campbell to posthumous fame explained further the meaning of ‘follow your bliss’: ”Campbell says: ‘We are so busy doing things of outer value that we no longer know what we intend,’ and he says this in many different ways. What Joe meant … is that the impositions of our culture, have caused us to lose touch with our inner selves and our own inner sense of being that directs us toward those things that are most meaningful in our lives.”[ii] Simple advice always merits a sprinkling of doubt but often proves dependable; Don Patterson’s aphorism about ‘tighty righty, lefty loosey’ having been more useful to him than the golden rule hits both sides of the situation of advice giving and taking. We have to be open to the advice and it has to open doors for us. This is true of the motto presented here: follow your bliss.
Campbell wasn’t original in this particular recommendation. Huston Smith writing about Campbell’s dictum to ‘Follow Your Bliss’ cites earlier precedents for this advice: “Aristotle was right in arguing that we experience eudaimonia (happiness) when we are excelling at what we do best, then “following your bliss” could mean discovering what you are good at doing, and then giving it your all. Plotinus agreed with Aristotle in considering ‘felicity’ the condition of persons who have attained the fullness of their development, and St. Thomas considered joy the noblest human act. Blake exhorted his readers to ‘arise, and drink your bliss, for everything that lives is holy,’ and those among Campbell’s listeners who were acquainted with Asian thought would have heard in ‘follow your bliss’ an echo of the Vedantic teaching that life’s object is to discover the ananda (bliss) that is our deepest unconscious.”[iii] The advice may be simple, but its pedigree is rich.
A related idea is that if we are following our bliss then that will provide passion. Will that be enough to leave the field and set up in another? Not likely. Determining the ‘what’ of reinvention in this guide does start with passion, the passion that fuels our desire to reconstruct, but does not end there. Passion is necessary because reinvention requires enormous energy and copious commitment. Passion is insufficient because it fades and flirts and confuses right along with its marvelous infection. That’s one of the reasons why this guide begins with ‘why’: the reason for reinvention reminds us of the end in mind when the passion in our soul ebbs. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote compellingly of ‘Flow’, a concept congruent with following your bliss. He described flow as those periods of “optimal experience, where we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished”. We definitely should seek that in our new field, but Csikszentmihalyi also reminded us that flow “does not come through passive, receptive, relaxing times.” Following our bliss may prove difficult and uncomfortable. One of the sources of discomfort is the questions that we must ask of ourselves and then answer with all the candor we can muster. As we seek to locate our passion amongst activities that we have already tried or at least carefully imagined, we may collide with reality. Looking for flow experiences may help to narrow down the possible objects of our new identity. But if the time of ‘flow’ was playing the guitar or raising a crop of tomatoes and a part of our ‘why’ was to increase our income substantially right away, then we might want to skip to the next and potentially more lucrative ‘passion’ on our list.
Stephanie Lee in the New York Times recently offered some other cautions about passion. Citing research, Lee argues that we develop our passions over time. Studies “found that people who hold a fixed theory had less interest in things outside of their current interests, were less likely to anticipate difficulties when pursuing new interests, and lost interest in new things much quicker than people who hold a growth theory. In essence, people with a growth mind-set of interest tend to believe that interests and passions are capable of developing with enough time, effort and investment.” The relevance to our reinvention guide is that in looking for the ‘what’ we may be looking for something that is difficult and as yet not mastered by us. Reinvention is not just the art of the possible. Ambitious goals are usually necessary in the experience. If we can’t locate our passion the reason might be because we have not yet done the work to develop it. In order for ‘leaving the field’ to be successful, we must question ourselves. One of those questions is whether we possess the patience necessary to invent and then inhabit some new career.
Even when we have located certainly our passion, we still must probe it. As suggested in our last series entry, “Our choice of ‘what’ should reflect where we believe we might develop further expertise, where we might build upon some skills that we already possess.” Self-examination should also extend to the places where we think our passion will play out. We should be careful to understand the mission of the organization or even of the entire field that we wish to enter through our reinvention. Does it fit our personality and beliefs? No matter how attractive the opportunities of a prospective ‘what’, an incongruence between the culture surrounding of our new job and our own values will render even the most spectacular reinvention into a glorious parachute ride that lands in an alligator filled swamp.
We need a place where they want that passion of ours to not only create our new identity but also to create value for everyone else. The reinvention that I prepared for in the last decade of the 20th century and accomplished in 2001 by becoming the first Chief Learning Officer at ETS had community and culture as important requirements for the particular organization where a new identity might play out. Everything wasn’t perfect at ETS, but the people cared about each other and they cared about the mission keenly. That meant I could apply my passion alongside other people who would appreciate it and toward a cause that I appreciated. Recently, ETS created a video that captured similar reinventions for several of my colleagues, some of whom I’ve not only known but who were part of the leadership development program — Learning for Business Results — that I co-created and sustained for 15 years with first Willa Thomas and then Janet Gillease. Their stories on the video are great examples of reinvention. One person, Hugo Dos Santos, goes from being a teacher to an assessment developer and talked about how that happened. Another, Jason Carter, talked about coming out of an MBA program and reinventing himself while at the same time being part of the reinvention of individuals gaining high school diplomas they may have missed earlier in their lives. Still another, Narmeen Makhani , talks about the reinvention that must occur for immigrants and that has led her to really important work in helping ETS to reinvent itself. Finally, our CEO, Walt MacDonald, talks about his reinvention from being a marine biologist to initially writing a lab manual for AP biology. The lab manual though revised is still in use today and a million students have used it on their way to greater proficiency in science.
Of course, ETS is just one organization, but these are specific examples of how individuals reinvented themselves. Their choice of ‘what’ may seem almost haphazard in a way, but in fact a clear understanding of why they wanted reinvention and the areas where they felt they could make the most difference guided that decision. Passion does play a part. And if I were in a cab with any reader of this series and asked for advice on how to ‘leave the field’ and where to go, I would still look for a fogged up window in which to trace that circle, place that dot in the middle, and say ‘follow your bliss’.
Next time: shaping the ‘how’ of reinvention. And a call for others to share their reinvention stories.
The story so far…
Leaving the Field — an Idiosyncratic Guide to Reinvention
[i] After his death, Brendan Gill ignited a debate about Campbell’s possible anti-Semitism and imagined connections to neo-fascism. The argument continues: Ellwood, Robert (1999). The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978–1–4384–0202–4.