Monthly Archives: April 2016

Follow Your Passion, and Other Fallacies of Vocation


What do you want to be when you grow up? And how do you know?

I asked these questions of my small group this week. My motive was a selfish one: I wanted to know how other people approached this challenge of structuring life, making plans, pursuing ambitions, and finding fulfillment—assuming it’s possible.

Half of the room stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions. I assume they, like me, hadn’t been asked that question since they were very young. At some point in our adolescence the question shifts from “What do you WANT to do” to “What ARE you going to do,” which is a very different question. The former question is open-ended and provocative, as it calls us to imagine a happier (though sometimes riskier) vocational reality. The latter query implies that you have the answers, that you know who who are, what your passions are, and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s a lot of pressure.

The funny thing is that, as a culture, we shroud both questions with flawed thinking. We approach the problem of vocation linearly: You like XYZ, so you go to school, learn how to do XYZ, and get a job doing XYZ. But what if you don’t know what you like? What if you don’t know what to study to best achieve your goals? What if there aren’t job descriptions that match your passion? Here are three fallacies blocking us from discovering and defining our vocation, as well as the video that prompted this blog post.

Fallacy #1: That we should have a passion we know we want to pursue. 
For years I thought something was wrong with me. I have always craved diverse experiences to help myself grow, an approach to life which many might argue is healthy. Nevertheless I watched in envy as others focused their efforts and enthusiasm toward mastery of individual skill. I neither knew how to do this nor could imagine limiting myself to a single discipline. Apparently, though, I’m not alone. William Damon in The Path to Purpose says that only 20% of people know the passions they want to pursue from an early age. This means that the other 80% of us spend a lot of time thinking we should be in the 20%, racking our brains for the single passion that supposedly will guide our lives. But why should we limit ourselves? We live in a world where individuals increasingly switch careers, sometimes multiple times. More people are pursuing different interests simultaneously, helped along by technology. Opportunities abound for learning new skills, largely thanks to the internet, where we see Youtube turning cooking newbies into culinary masters, turning Luddites into Adobe aficionados, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering college-level instruction at no cost. In other words, there is no need to pressure ourselves into a single passion to pursue.

Fallacy #2: Believing our BA determines vocation. 
I will never forget the night when my high school guidance councilor asked a group of 50 parents how many of them were working in the same field as their college majors. Only two of them raised their hands. Why then, given this telling display, do we put so much emphasis on college major decisions? The only constant is change, after all. And how are students supposed to know what they want unless they get to taste the real world, wrestle with its ups and downs, and structure their education accordingly? We have it backwards: students instead spend all their time in high school jumping through hoops and taking tests just to get into good colleges, but all without any idea of what their education is for or how it will be applied in their lives. Then they are told to focus their interests into a course of study to prepare for work which most of them have never experienced. Why do we do this, especially if we are going to change our career trajectories anyway? Like the councilor said, everyone can just relax about majors.

Fallacy #3: Believing that school makes us experts.
Many people rely solely on formal learning environments for gaining the necessary expertise to approach their vocation. But as with the first fallacy, too many students cannot structure their education around passions they don’t have, and as with the second, students rarely can rely on their major to guide their career choices. Sarah Stein Greenberg puts the problem this way in this great video from Wired:

If I told you that if you exercised every day for the next four years so that you would stay fit and healthy for life, you’d think I was crazy; but this is exactly how we approach learning in college.

We think that four years of college is sufficient education to get us through life. But why four years? It’s arbitrary when you think about it. More than this, learning through experience is, in many ways, much more powerful than classroom lessons. We need to see ourselves as life-long learners, willing to experiment and fail, wherein we learn best. “Expert” is a relative term anyway, so does it help to assume we will ever become experts, constantly judging ourselves by nebulous standards and an antiquated educational model?

Breaking free of these fallacies will likely take some time. As individuals, this involves upsetting misconceptions; unlearning can often be harder than learning. It means a paradigm shift, a reorientation of how we see ourselves as learners and workers. As communities, it means asking questions like, “How might we help people find their vocations through experience as well as school?” and “How might we re-imagine school and workplaces so that they better foster learning and passion development?” The answers to these questions are complex and will likely be fraught with concerns over cost, efficacy, and fear of change. But imagine a world in which students try their hands at real world work, understand how their education is preparing them to solve problems, and structure their own learning around a mission, instead of a major

The Stanford d.School is currently asking many of these questions. Here is a video of two of the d.School leaders discussing the question: How might we design our lives? I really appreciate their posture toward the problem, and I gained some good insights from their conversation. Please share your thoughts on the video and the post below.


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3 Merits of the Mobile Field Trip

I love learning about learning. I love thinking about what makes for a great learning experience, and what makes them fun, invigorating, and lasting. It was a delight therefore to learn about The Urban Greenlab project happening here in Nashville. The Urban Greenlab’s mission is to facilitate a range of educational and social programs that inspire participants from all socioeconomic backgrounds to make sustainability a bigger part of their lives—in their homes, neighborhoods, and businesses. They are a…

“nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and well-being of our city through sustainability. We fill a gap by offering programs that inspire people of all ages to incorporate sustainability into their daily lives. Our new Mobile Lab, a science-based interactive classroom that travels to local schools, is inspiring the next generation of sustainability leaders! Workshops on everything from green building to urban agriculture spark positive changes at home and work that save money, improve health, and conserve resources.”


This Mobile Lab is the object of my focus today. I hope soon to see it person. It strikes me as a fantastic idea for a sustainable (of course) and reproducible way to engage students in hands-on learning experiences around subjects that directly apply to their own lives. It is a free, mobile field trip; a museum that comes to you. How cool is that??!?!

I see three reasons for why this is a great idea from a layman’s point of view.

  1. It’s accessible. If you want to provide kids with a field trip, it doesn’t get easier than having the field trip come to you. This transformed trailer can set up shop in a school parking lot and immediately turn an ordinary school day into an extraordinary learning experience without the folderol of permission slips, chaperones, or snacks. Most importantly, it is available to schools that might not otherwise have the financial capacity to provide these hands-on learning experiences for their kids. The Mobile lab provides an innovative solution to the barrier of cost for lower-income area schools.
  2. It’s real. Sustainability and environmental issues bring up questions that are relevant to all of us. By contrast, so much of the American curriculum in public schools feels disconnected from the students’ lives; few teachers and parents help students make the connection for how, say, learning about calculus or the Jazz age or proper use of ellipses adds to their preparation for the real world. This is not to say that any of these subjects are unimportant, but it is rare today for students to break away from the prescribed curriculum to challenge their real-time, real-life perceptions of the real world.
  3. It’s immersive. I will never forget visiting Plymouth Plantation, a living history site in Massachusetts, and sitting on a bear pelt learning from a Native American guide in front of an open fire about how tomahawks were made. I was surrounded by the smells, the textures, and the scenes of what life was like for people living at the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival. The immersive factor is so critical to learning, and I feel strongly that whatever we can do to replicate and build on those experiences for other learners will be well worth our time. The mobile lab is a fantastic and innovative approach to this immersion challenge. Learners step inside and are surrounded by new ideas and the opportunity to engage, inevitably to emerge changed and challenged.

I wonder, how might we use this model elsewhere and for other subject matter? How might we reimagine immersive, hands-on learning experiences, and make them more accessible to more learners? Join me in thinking on these great questions!



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A Thursday Bechamel

We’ve had a butternut squash sitting on our counter for some time. I knew I wanted to make stuffed shells with it, but this was only half a plan. It needed a sauce, something herby, something creamy, but not too heavy. Then on my way home I remembered a snippet of a Barefoot Contessa clip where she made a bechamel, and I had my answer.


So here is a new recipe for you. Enjoy!

Stuffed Shells with Butternut Squash and a Sage Bechamel 

Stuffed Shells
Large Shells
1 Butternut Squash
1 shallot
3 tbs sherry
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
salt, pepper, and sage to taste

Sage Bechamel
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup milk
1/4 cup cream
sprinkle of lemon juice
sage, salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste

Cook the shells to a lovely al dente.

Peel and chop the butternut squash. Roast pieces at 400 degrees until tender and can be pierced with a fork. Puree squash.

Dice the shallot and saute until translucent. Add the sherry and let it boil down. Add the butternut squash puree and cook until liquid is absorbed. Stir in heavy cream, and then the cheese, lemon juice, and spices.

Melt the butter in a sauce pan and add the flour. Stir until smooth and cook the roux for a minute. Add the milk and cream and simmer until thickened. Add spices to taste.

To assemble, spoon the puree mixture into the shells and drizzle bechamel across the tops. Top with sliced fresh basil. Savor.






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Photo Friday: Springtime in Nashville

Back when we lived in Chicago, the change of seasons would happen suddenly. It would feel each year like the city would decide overnight that it was Spring. Nashville, by contrast, has had a gradual season shift, and it’s been very pleasant. Everyday the landscape paints itself with green and yellow speckles, and every corner has a different tree erupting in white and purple flowers.

It’s been delightful watching Nashville bloom this Spring. See what I mean.












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3 Lessons in How People Learn

There is a funny paradox in education: teachers can teach their hearts out, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is learning.

Even with the best of intentions and Herculean efforts, teachers cannot guarantee that the information they’re transmitting is being received. Teaching and Learning are separate processes; their overlap may not be as wide as we might think. This paradox is particularly pertinent today, as headlines regularly bombard us with the question:

Are American schools failing our students?

It’s a legitimate question. As my father always likes to say, we live in a world with exponential rates of change. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Are new generations learning what they need to keep up and, most importantly, HOW to adapt, problem-solve, and excel?

So what are we to do with this paradox? Do teachers teach in vain? Not at all. But it does imply that the best teaching carefully mirrors how people learn, increasing the overlap in the Venn diagram between learning and teaching. Therefore, a closer look at how people learn should point us in the direction of disruptive innovation desperately needed in our educational systems.

With this in mind, I’ve been doing some reading into how people learn. I am reading about formal learning environments like school as well as about learning outside of school, including in museums, in work environments, and the ways in which we teach ourselves. So far, I have gleaned several fascinating concepts:

  1. Learners, not teachers, make their own meaning. 
    Back when I used to teach people how to facilitate small groups, I frequently had to correct people (gently) who wanted to force their beliefs on other people. “People need to learn at their own pace,” I would say. “No one tells us what to believe except us. People need to come to conclusions on their own.” The more I read about learning, and especially in museums, the more I realize how widely this principle applies. Meaning-making, apparently a technical term, is when people construct their own understanding and narratives through combining new information and concepts with their own knowledge and experiences. As Deborah Perry says in her book, What Makes Learning Fun, “museums as institutions are becoming increasingly constructivist environments, places where visitors construct their own meanings by actively engaging with exhibits, programs, objects, and phenomena.” This suggests that learning is indeed the responsibility  of the learner, not the teacher, and that the opportunity to interact with—instead of passively receive—new information and ideas is key to making meaning. An environment emphasizing active engagement allows learners to challenge their presuppositions, question what they don’t understand, and shape the meaning for themselves.calvin-and-hobbes-fundamental-rights-small
  2. Conversation is one of the most essential tools for learning. 
    I read an article recently (which I regret to say I can no longer find) talking about how children today are growing up without engaging in meaningful conversations with either adults or peers. The article cited a decrease in interactive play (especially between parents and children), the rise in media, and the ever-increasing demands for testing in schools as the culprits of this negligence. The consequences of limiting human to human interaction are easy to predict: children grow up not knowing how to express themselves, without having their ideas challenged, and without the ability to ask questions. Without learning to communicate, the resulting “grown-ups” become poor spouses, difficult teammates, and even worse parents. Conversation from the early ages, then, is essential; it is not something we do after we gain knowledge and wisdom, but what we do to become knowledgeable and wise. It makes sense: When communicating ideas to someone else, we are actively shaping those ideas to be received by that person. This active manipulation of thoughts does not happen when we passively receive information from a lecturer or a screen. Learners need to speak and share and question, as well as listen, in order for new concepts to sink in. As Perry says, “By talking with their companions, museum visitors make sense of their experiences and create deeper understanding, and by engaging with the stuff of museums, they talk more with their companions (Silverman 1990). It’s a two-way street. In this sense, learning is conversation, and conversation is learning. ‘What a group talks about, it thinks about; . . . talking is a tool for socially constructed thought, not just evidence of it; and . . . talk supports the gradual alteration and development of goals during the course of a visit’ (Leinhardt and Knutson 2004, 159).”ch-21
  3. Learners have prerequisite conditions for learning to be effective.
    I have long felt, and occasionally written, that formal education, and especially high school, needs to do a better job of communicating the purpose of education to students. In this article, the author cites William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, as saying “that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth… the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.” This article in the same vein says, “students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.” Schools, museums, and other learning institutions would do well to connect the curriculum to the learners’ big picture sense of purpose. Adding to this, Perry in her book on museums that learners need to be sufficiently motivated in order to learn anything:”museum visitors will be more likely to have satisfying, intrinsically motivating experiences when their engagements with exhibits meet their needs to
    (a) be part of a communication process,
    (b) have their curiosity piqued,
    (c) feel safe and smart,
    (d) be challenged,
    (e) be in charge of their learning, and
    (f) be playful.”
    This idea that learners need to meet these criteria suggests that teachers and designers should shape the learning environment accordingly. Consider this video showing New Orleans High School students are asked what would make their education more meaningful. Their answers are profound and point to a deep need to rethink school. 



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Story of Fascinating Man

“I don’t know if you saw it on the UChicago website…” I began, about to refer my interviewee to one of my articles.

“Oh yes! About the animator guy! He sounded FASCINATING!”

That wasn’t the article I meant, but I laughed, knowing the joke. I explained, “Yes, he certainly is. But you should know I’m super biased. That guy is my husband.”

The article I wrote about my husband came about in a funny way. This assignment was a part of a series talking about how UChicago alumni are applying their different majors. Josh was, well, available and nearby, so I interviewed him. This does not mean, however, that his proximity detracts whatsoever from his fascinating qualities.

Josh has had a very interesting, nonlinear career path as he has navigated his ever-growing body of interests. I think his story is inspiring. But again, I am SUPER biased. 🙂

josh screenshot

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