On The Choice Of A Profession
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Complete explanation of the Essay
Young students coming out of senior schools or colleges often can’t decide what profession or job they should take up. Total lack of experience and the anxiety resulting from entering a new phase of life makes them nervous. Many among these young people approach senior members of the family or society for guidance. This is both natural and desirable. In the same way, the senior people offer their recommendations quite spontaneously. Such readiness to help a youngster is also desirable and commendable. These senior counsellors speak with a certain amount of authority because they assume that they have sound and proven experience to give the most suitable advice.
However, the author reasons that such readymade advice can be seriously flawed. Taking the case of a bank manager, he goes to show that the person in question goes about doing his daily routine jobs thinking it to be his ‘duty’. With some intelligent scrutiny, it can be seen that the bank manager mixes up his professional obligations of running the bank smoothly with his sense of ‘duty’. ‘Profession’ and ‘duty’ can at times be poles apart. Such dichotomy arises because a youngster is virtually pushed into a daily routine right from their childhood. They are conditioned to be punctual to school, mind their studies, score marks, graduate from colleges and then take up whatever job comes their way to make a living. Soon after the person is virtually prodded to get married, and settle down in their lives. All these things happen to an individual’s life without giving them time or option to pause and then proceed to do whatever their inner self wants them to do. Thus, the moral sense, and the God-given mental faculties are not given any importance. The sense of ‘duty’ thus gets blurred, and the person wrongly accepts their professional obligations to be their ‘duty’.
The author cites the way the iconic philosopher Socrates laid down his procedure of asking questions so that the knowledge-seeker gets the right knowledge. Socrates had laid down a procedure for such quest for knowledge. A person with some scanty knowledge of a certain matter was advised to approach an acknowledged expert on the matter, and ask him questions. On listening to the latter’s replies, the inquirer would find himself vastly enriched with knowledge. This method of seeking wisdom is rarely followed in modern days.
When a person is approached for certain advice, they proffer it quite spontaneously without any degree of intelligent scrutiny. As a result, the advice they give lacks intellectual rigour. It is found to be flawed and deficient. Liberal education permits discourse, free flow of ideas, and no stereotypical prescriptions. It fosters plurality of thought, reasoned conclusions, and most importantly, a varied choice of solution to a specific question. Because the conclusions are arrived at after free and extensive confabulations, the solution offered is always more correct and robust. Sadly, this is not the case. Senior people, when asked to give some career advice, shoot off answers that are not backed by incisive scrutiny. These people are to busy in their jobs and daily lives to pause, think and analyse things before giving an advice.
To elucidate his argument further, the author cites the example of the washing of sheep. Generally, it is brisk process when the washer moves his hand briskly all over the body of the sheep without bothering to find out if it hurts the sheep in any way. The poor sheep has no say in the ritualistic bathing. It just submits itself to the pushing, scrubbing, and showering done by the man. In a few minutes, the sheep emerges bathed and cleaned. In the same way, a young man emerging out of college is pushed thoughtlessly to any job readily available. Absolutely no thought is given to see if the job suits the the young man or woman and whether the job does justice to the in-born qualities and instincts of the person. From then on, the young recruit is implored to do his ‘duty’ well, give his best to the job, and be model employee so that the career growth path remains wide. It can easily be seen that the person gets ‘trapped’ in his new occupation, and he has no recourse to reverse it. All that he is instinctively good at are pushed to the back seat, and he is asked to do things that, given a choice, they would never do. A person conditioned genetically to be a forester is pushed to become a nursing assistant, another, with a burning love for music is forced to become a loco driver. What results from such mismatch is lifelong boredom, impaired productivity, and a colossal loss of human talent. This is the price the society pays because the person doing the work of counselling choses to give his advice rather impulsively, without subjecting it to the Socratic method of evaluation.
When the ‘trapped’ person retrospects, he might draw solace from the fact that he could have got into far worse types of jobs. The banker’s jo that he does now is, possibly, better than many other jobs that he could have been pushed into. However, since there is no point crying over spilt milk, he continues to treat the banker’s job with reverence. After spending a few years in a certain profession, it is practically impossible to switch to another to satisfy one’s inner cravings. So, most people feel resigned to their fate and continue with their job, almost like a robot.
Tragically, a young student in his formative school days is discouraged from dabbling with thoughts about different professions for their future. The guardians acting as counsells, and the senior students in school intervene to prevent a young student from thinking independently about their career choice. Instead, they tend to impose their’s. This happens because these senior people have themselves been prevailed upon to take up a certain profession by their seniors. The practice of ‘trapping’ young minds thus perpetuates. The author cites the example how captured and trained elephants are deployed to rein in a wild one in the jungle.
Historically, senior members of the family and society have forced the junior ones to take to a certain trade through coercion, and cajoling. The stick and carrot policy is pursued till the youngster falls in line. The author cites how the Seventeenth century philosopher Sir Thomas Browne had described the profound influence of the place of birth of a person on his religion. A person born in London was ordained to become a Protestant, one born in Benaras would be a Hindu.
The author cites another example of how the culture of person decides their food and drinking habits. An Englishman drinks his beer and feels it in his throat, where as a French man drinks his wine and feels it in the front of his mouth. He can spend hours to finish his drink, where as an Englishman just gulps down his drink in quick time. The English man prefers a cold bath, and the French man like to take a hot water bath occasionally. The Englishman raises a large family, and wants to continue working till his last day in life, where as a French man wants to retire in time and die in the presence of his small family.
Thus, our nationality and cultural roots decide the way we live. Loyalty to the British monarch (King or Queen) is ingrained in every Englishman’s flesh and blood. Very dogmatically, with no recourse to counter questioning, we willingly abide by the wishes and norms set before us to follow. The question arises as to how and why despite the abundance of such age-old knowledge, there is not enough knowledge in the world. The author proceeds to answer the question. He cites the case of a father who is a devout Christian, and is conversant with all the wisdom available in the Bible. When his son is ready to enter a career, he asks him to choose one that is industrious, honest and lucrative. The author cites the instance of another father, also a Christian, who wants his son to think and decide well in advance the career.
A wise man who preaches something, but practices something different can’t be said to be wise. Such wisdom is not true. No doubt, money plays a dominant part in one’s choice of a career, because without financial independence one loses dignity and peace. With nagging financial problems, one can’t lead an upright respectable life. However, there is a moral dilemma here. What is financial independence? At what income level, one can get it? By cutting expenses, the threshold can be lowered, so that in a low-paying job, one feels contented. Alternately, by boosting one’s income, one can achieve financial freedom. So, what is the right choice? It depends upon the strata of society one cherishes to be in. If he wants to counted as an elite and affluent person, he has to earn far more than what he needs for being a commoner.
A banker is considered an affluent man belonging to the high society. For earning so high, he has to run his bank well. To run his bank well, he has to spend hours in his office neglecting his family life and other mundane pleasures. So, he suffers in this regard, although he has the privilege of the most luxurious clubs. On the contrary, a painter willingly forgoes even the basic needs of life to passionately pursue his innocent pleasures. Thus, he suffers with regard to the comforts of life, but gains a lot of job satisfaction. It is evident that there is hardship in both choices.
The dilemma confronting a youngster as stated above are facts of life. This is a riddle that has no straight answer. The author asks his readers to examine this issue boldly, without any preconceived notion. When someone makes a choice, he refuses quite a few and decides on one. So making a choice entails a lot of negative decisions. Even the most liberal professions has many positive aspects, and many more negative aspects. Any particular career might satisfy a man in so many ways, but can leave many of his inner instincts unfulfilled. Certain professions are so divergent from each other that it becomes impossible to have the second as even a hobby. For example, a banker can not be a sea voyager. An ace violinist can’t be an ace painter. One is forced to sacrifice one charm to enjoy in the other. So, if a person is too fascinated with one profession, it is better they follow it. If such unequivocal commitment to a certain profession is not there, it becomes very difficult to advise any specific alternative. The author is very hesitant to recommend something in such cases.
The author cites the case of a schoolmaster whose job was to find out what profession each of the pupils liked most. Well, this is a daunting task both for the teacher and the students. The author feels that the youngster can go with the tide and grab any job, if he has no specific like or dislike for any profession. But, if the individual has a slight fascination with a certain profession, the author is ready to give his suggestion.
The author says that one’s choice is paramount. If someone wants to sell fruits from his pushcart in the street, he should do so, because that’s his liking. Even being a donkey keeper is not a bad job, if someone likes it. If a youngster has no choice at all, let them go and do whatever comes his way.
In his conclusion, the author apologizes to the youngster and his parents that he has failed to give a definitive advice to the youngster who sought it from him. However, he finds some comfort in the fact that he has not tried to hold back anything, or give a deceptive answer. The author assures the youngster that he will find a job anyway, and will get adjusted to it sooner or later, as most young men and women do. With some dejection and regret, the author says that most young people accept their jobs making serious compromises with their inner call. This is nothing but intellectual dishonesty. Rather philosophically, the author says that the youngster will get reconciled to his ill-fitting job, and accept the misfortune stoically without complaining for the rest of his life.