Back in the late fall we were plodding our way through Julie Jansen’s I Don’t Know What I want but I Know It’s Not This, a decent book of insights and strategies for those who are discontented with their present worksites or career tracks. I discovered this work in one of my continuing education courses to renew my counseling license, a career/vocational counseling course. I was reading, as is my custom, on-line reviews about this book, and many of the criticisms reminded me of my own work as a therapist. The common thread of complaint is that Ms. Jansen’s book is so much like all the other self-help books on career change and work place stress they had read.
As I say, this reminded me so much of my office days. I would often have patients walk into my office with several self-help books under their arms. Now that I think of it, the books were not under their arms; they were waived in my face with the desperate hope of approbation from an expert for at least one—and hopefully all—of the publications. I think my office record is six books in one session, and I was on the verge of accessing the patient’s health care plan for a good chiropractor referral. This is not to belittle the patients—when in pain, we look for help wherever we can—and my earlier life might have been less chaotic if I had read more books and consumed less Scotch. (Today I buy so many theology books that I can’t afford Scotch anyway.)
It is probably good to know that where self-help books are concerned—and this caveat includes religious and spiritual guides as well as mental health maintenance—there is no such thing as the holy grail. If self-help books look repetitive, it is in the same sense that the Ten Commandments or the AA Big Book are repetitive. I believe it was Aristotle who observed that there are only twelve basic story lines in literature and life, and there is a lot of truth to that. Living a morally and professionally satisfying life is more often than not a matter of focus upon basic values and their subsequent behaviors.
I am not denying, of course, that some weird things get into print—again, equally true of religion and mental health. This is why I am always beating the drum about publishers, the importance of knowing which editorial boards have high standards about what publications will carry their brand. I have good Catholic publishers resourced on this website, but for the moment I would cite two excellent ones. Paulist Press and Liturgical Press. I never worry that a publication from these companies would deviate from good standards of Catholic faith and professionalism; in short, they would “do no harm” as Hippocrates would say, with a better than even chance of doing a lot of good.
Going back to our work place book with Ms. Jansen (published by the old reliable Penguin Press), if the worst thing that can be said about her text is its similarity to others of the same genre, there is a lesson here: a large number of vocational counseling authors are in agreement about basic principles of self-management. In my experience the difference between authors is the sizzle, not the steak. At some point the quest for stress reduction must lead to changes in thought and behavior. A competent self-help author will sell the concept and provide the tools, but the reader must do the work.
In Chapter 4 (pp. 43-60) Jansen discusses the importance of self-knowledge, taking an honest look at one’s personality to see what kinds of work environments and job styles an individual is best suited for. In assessing personality preferences, Jansen’s inventory explores how personal dispositions attach to real life work settings: do you enjoy personal interactions, do you need quiet and isolation, are you discomfited on a team with differing philosophies and outlooks, do you prefer to be a leader or a follower? It is hard at times to admit certain things about ourselves; if you are an introverted and private person, you may find public work in a parish rather stressful, as you can be sure your life and job performance are fodder for countless conversations and comparisons.
Along these lines, I have often seen a dissonance between the kind of ministry a person believes himself called to, versus his actual spiritual/psychological/vocational skill set. This has been very true in terms of candidates for the priesthood. Our stereotype of the “perfect candidate” for the seminary is the humble, idealistic, deeply spiritual soul. In truth, the demands on the typical Catholic pastor would destroy such a man in a very short time. A successful pastor is an extrovert who takes an appropriate satisfaction in his liturgical and political responsibility of leadership, who enjoys a profession where Tuesday is always different from Monday, who takes pleasure in the challenge of wringing big bucks from affluent prospects and managing a parish plant like a good CEO. I hope this does not sound crass—I don’t intend it to be—and some of the finest religious men I know have lived their lives in settings that demand exactly what I have outlined. My point is—it’s not a ministerial life for everyone. As for that deeply spiritual potential clerical candidate, there are other many other routes for him: the monastery comes to mind, or a retreat house setting. But candidates don’t always want to hear that, which is why dioceses are supposed to provide intensive and well-informed psychological testing and norms to discover career dissonance before a life is ruined.
Jansen goes on to discuss the importance of interests: it helps a great deal if you actually like what you’re doing, whether as a full time professional or a volunteer. One of my best friends from seminary days is an avid fly fisherman. He participates in a program whereby returning veterans with physical and/or psychological scars are introduced to the healing environment of the trout stream, apparently with very favorable outcomes. There are Catholics who enjoy the give-and-take of debate, or dialectic as the old Greeks would have put it. To my way of thinking, here are great candidates for faith formation with teens and young adults. It is hard for me to imagine anyone enjoying success in faith formation and teaching without a burning passion to read.
Finally, Jansen looks at practical skills. I have been lucky to possess a fair ability to write and record keep, so maintaining patient records was never a downer for me. Writing sermons and reports has never been problematic, particularly when added to my knack for writing fiction for chancery officials. But I never mastered a second language (and since I am growing increasingly deaf, I don’t see much point in mishandling two languages at my age.) I cannot manage a high school classroom. I have a computer named Cortana that unfortunately records all the cursing I do while attempting to master it. It stands to reason, then, that vocationally speaking, you want to avoid being the square peg in the round hole.