BUENOS AIRES — Choosing a career path is one of the most important decisions a person can make. But how much choice does one really have? How much say in the matter is an individual really afforded? What kind of advice can we give our children and grandchildren?
Life alternates between doing what we want to do and bowing to collective pressure to do what we should do. It is what the philosopher Michel Foucault termed the subjected subject: one who believes her actions are autonomous, who can't imagine she's actually conforming to laws created by others; a person whose personal interest consists of other people's interests.
If the subject is subjected, then the problem becomes twofold: subjection and normalization. And to that end, one of the most functional tools is perhaps the ability to mark limits between the normal and abnormal. Would anyone urge their children to take an "abnormal" path in life? Would certain vocational choices throw us into such a world of abnormality? Which are the normal, or abnormal career choices? Perhaps the most abnormal thing is not making a choice at all. The social norm, after all, is to choose between myriad options offered by the marketplace of careers.
First anomaly: A person cannot not study.
For the most part, "studying" is taken to mean higher education — something one does at a specific time and place and commits to (more or less exclusively), until eventually earning a formal qualification or degree. But is that the only way a person can study?
Studying is not easily defined. Does it have to do with our existential, inherent and human search for meaning? Or does it require fitting into one of the roles the established order sets out, a place in the framework of professional development intended to make society function?
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, for one, compares studying to a blow that leaves us stunned. He sees it as an endless exercise that removes us from ourselves. This is a big question, one as problematic as the convoluted concepts of love and marriage; justice and legality; religion and spirituality. We can even tie it to another, almost traditional dispute: vocation vs. profession. Do institutions represent us? Or restrict us?
The only clear thing is that there is no clear answer. One cannot not study, but the desire for meaning exceeds the options available.
Second anomaly: There is little margin for error.
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Check the boxes — Photo: College of DuPage
People's identities are often tied to their choice of study and career. But that often means defining one's future while still in high school. I am what I studied!
Social pressures weigh heavily: Someone who does not know what to study is immediately shunted toward vocational training options. The apparent implication is a "crisis" of identity. As if identity were not already in a permanent state of crisis! The link between personal identity and career path is questionable at best.
Nietzsche believed that the I is a battleground of different fragments in conflict; and I would only add no single fragment should prevail as the only perspective on one's life.
Third anomaly: There isn't really much of a distinction between vocation and profession, after all.
And thank God, because otherwise we would live in a state of cultural schizophrenia. Imagine if everyone had it clear in their mind that what they really should be doing is one thing while instead they're stuck doing another. In reality, people can do various things at once. The most conservative outlook would maintain that existing professions constitute all vocations. The most revolutionary perspective is that come the revolution, every vocation will find its way to becoming a profession.
In the meantime, we can propose this to our children: Do what you want, for the only abnormality is to do something you do not believe in.