On vocation and self-actualization

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Follow your heart.
Follow your bliss.
Follow your passion.

All of these are horrible advice when it comes to one’s vocation.

When one’s emotion and primal desires are the final arbiters of serious decisions that affect the rest of your life (or, very long time), there is no solid foundation upon they build their career. Furthermore, it is very limiting: if “doing what makes you happy” is the only ends of your life directions or career exploration, there is nothing more to your life beyond your feelings.

The word vocation comes from the Latin word for calling, and traditionally, it was understood as God’s voice. By its very nature, a vocation must transcend the total sum of one’s person; it is rooted in the idea of one’s service to something far greater than who they are, namely, “God, king, and country.” It was never about self-fulfillment. Rather, it was about the furtherance of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth or betterment of the world through one’s service to humanity by making the best use of one’s talent.

As a libertarian, I certainly respect everyone’s inherent and inviolable right to self-determination; however, I repudiate the Randian notion of a “virtue of selfishness.” Ayn Rand and her cultists, mostly the laisser-faire anarcho-capitalists, would have you believe that the religion of ego-exaltation and self-actualization is the path to freedom. Nevertheless, this argument has a serious flaw. A truly free society, in which voluntary mutual aid is the norm and authoritarian state violence is made obsolete, can only thrive and survive in a culture of altruism and a high level of ethical and moral integrity. This is where I concur with the religious conservatives to a certain extent: liberty is guaranteed in a moral society where certain values shared by the plurality of its people drive the whole of a community. If everyone only did what strikes their passion, or followed their ever-unreliable and ever-shifting heart, all that we will have is a jungle where animal instincts reign supreme. Everyone’s ego and selfish desires become the only law, and as such, everyone becomes the law upon themselves. There will not be a free society, just a war zone.

Unfortunately, post-modern capitalism has elevated the cult of self-actualization into an art form. The multi-million-dollar self-improvement industry and its army of self-appointed coaches and gurus are making handsome money selling the false promise of bliss and passion to people who are desperate for a sense of fulfillment and meaning, who are willing to cough up thousands of dollars for yet another workshop.

But what is not spoken is this: It is precisely that those who enjoy white privilege and economic privilege are the only ones who have a luxury of “following their heart.” Those who are on the margins of society, crushed under the oppression and poverty, cannot pursue their passion or bliss; they will try to learn whatever the marketable skill so they can get a job, whether they really like it or not. In any case, for those who have spent most of their lives being told they are worthless, useless, and powerless, the best approach for vocational guidance is not to appeal to their self-oriented desires but rather to help them understand that they can be part of something far greater than who they are (thus, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh appeal to young men from a racially oppressed and socially marginalized background).

The last thing this world needs is this amoral and unprincipled cult of self-exaltation being peddled as an answer to life’s important questions at crossroads.