Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And it’s a Good Thing, Too)

Excerpts from William T. Cavanaugh’s chapter in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015)

The following quotation is attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish, if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.” This message is constantly reinforced in education and entertainment directed at children. Disney movies often rely on a formula in which an anthropomorphized panda or plane or rat or monster or car believes in himself, overcomes his limitations and the restrictions of society, and fulfills his wildest dreams. The protagonist along the way learns contempt for the unimaginative drudgery to which the majority of society remains captive; self-fulfillment is privileged over the common good. A disparagement of routine labor is accompanied by a disregard for hard work and the development of good habits. As Luke Epplin’s recent article in The Atlantic puts it, “Turbo and Dusty”—the protagonists of the animated movies Turbo and Planes—“don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents.” Customs, community, rules, habituation—all are ignored in favor of spontaneous gratification of one’s wants.

What happens when young adults who have been marinated in this type of cultural messaging come to the range of questions surrounding vocation? They are often told not only that they can and must choose their life, but that they must maximize that choice and choose their best life. Furthermore, the choice of their best life consists of knowing what they want and then seeking to attain what they want. It is no wonder that many young adults find this demand paralyzing. How many times has panic flashed across the face of a student confronted by the seemingly innocent question, “What would you like to do when you graduate?” Many, no doubt, suspect that what Abraham Lincoln and Dusty the animated airplane say is simply not true: you actually can’t be whatever you want to be. But even if they accept some realistic limitations on the fulfillments of their wants, the deeper problem remains: do they even know what they want? How does anyone really know what kind of life one wants? Can people choose what sorts of lives are right for them before they have lived enough to know? The whole exercise of choosing one’s vocation becomes fraught with anxiety

Questions to Consider:

  • What are the realistic limitations on the fulfillment of your wants? How do these limitations differ from what your parents and your grandparents faced when they were your age? Should you try to overcome these limitations or work within them? Why?
  • How has Hope College prepared you to choose what sort of life is good for you before you have lived enough to know? Or do you feel woefully unprepared to make choices about your vocation?


Psychologists use the term “maximizer” to describe the person who tries to live up to the ideal of the sovereign chooser by making the optimal choice from the range of options. The ideal is a corollary of the notion that having more choices is always better; as choice expands, some even better options may come into play, thus increasing the range of candidates for the “best” possible choice. Maximizers do not stop looking for a sweater or a job when they find one they like; there is always one more store or one more website they need to check to make sure that they don’t settle for second best. The term “satisficer” is used to describe those who stop looking when they find what they were seeking. Maximizers are much less happy with life than satisficers, not because they make worse choices—after all, the maximizer might well end up getting a better deal on the same sweater—but because they can never be satisfied with the choices they make. Maximizers fantasize about living someone else’s life, because the best life is always out of reach.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you see yourself as a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?
  • Presumably, it’s possible to be both a “maximizer” and a “satisficer”—you might have some areas in your life where you do not stop looking for the best choice, while in other areas you stop looking when you find what you are seeking. In what aspects of your life are you a “maximizer”? a “satisficer”?
  • If you can be both, can you choose when to be a “maximizer” and when to be a “satisficer”? If so, when would you want to be a “maximizer”? a “satisficer”?

Suggested Reading: Work, Life, and Vocational Choice

Lee Hardy, “Work, Life, and Vocational Choice: Investing Yourself in the Divine Economy,” in The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

“Career decisions are rarely irrevocable. Most people nowadays go through four or five career changes in the course of a lifetime. When I was in high school I wanted to go into cinematography. I loved movies, and I wanted to make some. Instead I became an advertising artist. But later, while working in an art studio in the San Francisco Bay area, I found myself drawn into the discipline of philosophy. I needed to clarify certain issues in life. Today I am a professor of philosophy at a liberal arts college. And I suspect most people past their twenties have similarly crooked accounts of how they came to their present occupations. Career paths are rarely straight. Typically they are afflicted by detours, unmarked intersection, forced exits, blind alleys, and cul-de-sacs… We can’t know everything before we act. An element of trial and error is unavoidable in the carving out of a niche for oneself in the world of work.” (87)

Questions to Consider:

  • What “detours” have you already encountered either at Hope College or before?
  • If trials and errors inevitably lie before you, what assumptions about your career will your job choices test?
  • Many jobs and careers today did not exist twenty years ago. We might call these “unmarked intersections.” How has your liberal arts education prepared you to respond to these?


Hardy proposes three steps in “responsible vocational choice”:

  1. Identify the abilities and talents God has given us.
  2. Become aware of the specific concern for others God has given us.
  3. Based on our interests, cultivate skills that we can use in the service of others.


“The assumption behind these recommendations is that discovering God’s will for one’s life is not so much a matter of seeking out miraculous signs and wonders as it is being attentive to who and where we are. It is not as if our abilities, concerns, and interests are just there, as an accident of nature, and then God has to intervene in some special way in order to make His will known to us in a completely unrelated manner. Rather, in making a career choice, we ought to take seriously the doctrine of divine providence: God Himself gives us whatever legitimate abilities, concerns, and interests we in fact possess. These are His gifts, and for that very reason they can serve as indicators of His will for our lives. In coming to know ourselves and our situation, we come to know God’s will.” (92)

Questions to Consider:

  • How has your time at Hope College helped you to discern the abilities, concerns, and interests God has given you?
  • As you look ahead to life after Hope College, how will you continue to learn more about yourself and your situation, as you continue to discern God’s will?

Suggested Reading: Beyond the University

Michael S. Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014)

“When I began my freshman year at Wesleyan University almost forty years ago, I had only the vaguest notion of what a liberal education was. My father (like his father before him) was a furrier, and my mother sang with a big band before she decided to start a family. Giving their children access to a college education was part of their American dream, even if campuses sometimes seemed to them like foreign countries. Now I serve as president of the same institution at which they first dropped me off, and where I stumbled into courses like Intro to Philosophy and Abnormal Psychology. Much has changed in higher education since my student days. At highly selective schools, many undergraduates now behave like consumers, arriving on campuses with specific demands and detailed plans for their eight semesters. Many are intent on building resumes by choosing to double-major and accumulate credentials to match what they imagine to be an employer’s expectations. Parents check that the facilities of the institution meet their standards of comfort and sophistication and want to be reassured that their student will develop specific skills that will justify the extraordinary financial investment that many private colleges and universities require.” (1-2)

Questions to Consider:

  1. What’s your response to the conclusion that “a broad education that sets the foundation for a lifetime of learning can seem impossibly idealistic” (2)?
  2. Roth defines a liberal education as “the combination of the philosophical and rhetorical traditions of how one learns as a whole person” (4-5). In what ways does Hope College provide a “liberal education”? What kinds of responses do seniors give when asked to reflect on the extent to which Hope has taught them to “learn as a whole person”? Surely we could do more for them, but what? Instructors in the Senior Seminar program, like those who teach capstone courses in the majors and minors, are in a privileged position to see the effects—great and small—of Hope College’s liberal education on its students. What have you learned from teaching seniors that might inform how best to teach first-year students, sophomores, or juniors?
  3. Is the claim that “broadly based, self-critical and yet pragmatic education matters today more than ever, and that it matters far beyond the borders of any university campus” (10) something we need to defend only to those outside the academy? Or do we need to articulate and justify this argument to ourselves, too? What might be the value of having an internal conversation about the value, meaning, and purpose of the liberal arts?
  4. Is Roth’s section on MOOCs an unnecessary and soon-to-be-outdated aside? How might—and/or should—new instructional technologies shape a liberal education?


Note: Neither I nor the Senior Seminar Program necessarily endorse all or any of the views, perspectives, or pedagogical practices in the readings that I recommend. Rather, I hope to stimulate and foster meaningful discussion and dialogue, which often means reading texts that you might find challenging and/or in opposition to your own attitudes and perspectives. Therefore, I hope that you find this suggested reading thought provoking.

How much work should students invest in Senior Seminar?

On January 6, 2015, the Academic Affairs Board approved the following definition of a credit hour:

The Hope College Policy on the Definition of a Credit Hour requires a minimum of three hours of academic work or study per week for each hour of course credit in a sixteen-week semester. This Policy is consistent with the federal definition of a credit hour and with the Higher Learning Commission’s implementation of this definition.

For a four-credit course, traditional semester (like Senior Seminar taught in the Fall or the Spring Terms), this means:

  • 3 hours of In-Class Work Per Week
  • 9 hours of Out-of-Class Work Per Week (e.g., reading, writing)
  • 12 Total Expected Hours of Work Per Week


This definition most likely aligns with what most Senior Seminar syllabi already expect of students. That said, I encourage instructors to review the required texts and writing assignments.

For reference, according to ExecuRead:

  • The average reading speed is 200 to 250 words per minute in non-technical material: roughly 2 minutes per page.
  • In technical material, the average reading rate is approx 50 to 75 words per minute: roughly 5 to 6 minutes per page.


How much time does it take students to write? As you know, that number can vary widely. My advice is to subtract the in-class and reading time from a given week, see what you have left, and use your hard-earned wisdom and experience to evaluate whether or not the remaining time is the “right amount” for the writing assignment(s) and other prep.

Another approach might be to look at the economics. In January 2015 (Note: Prices may have changed since then.), I went to Papers Lead, whose “expert writers are always ready to offload your academic burden.”

  • A 20-page Personal Statement at the College Level (i.e., a “Lifeview Paper”) deliverable in 15 days will cost $230. You can get one in 3 hours for $515, but we’re planning ahead.
  • If we divide $230 by the federal minimum wage ($7.25), we get 31.7 hours for 20 pages, or 1.6 hours per page.
  • Let’s call that 1.5 hours to make the math easier.
  • So, using this number, we can assume that a three-page paper will take a student 4.5 hours either to write or to earn the money to buy.
  • Note: If you ask for a quote on a three-page paper you get a larger than expected number. Clearly, there are some start-up costs to offloading one’s academic burden.


Anyway, here’s an example of thinking through expected hours per week:

  • In a given week my TR class will meet for 3 hours, and I might assign, say, 120 pages of reading (the equivalent of 4 hours).
  • That leaves 5 hours of additional expected out-of-class work.
  • I might then reasonably ask that a student spend 1 hour before each class thinking about/responding to discussion questions I’ve posted ahead of time, and I might have a weekly 2-page response that I expect a student to spend three hours writing.
  • For Senior Seminar, the Lifeview Paper (i.e., the “Personal Statement at the College Level”) is a large assignment that spans multiple weeks, and so I can also assume a student will spend some time each week writing that paper. OK, maybe I can hope that s/he does so rather than writing it all the night before.


Again, my sense is that Hope College’s credit hour definition more or less corresponds to what Senior Seminar instructors are already doing. Still, I encourage instructors to make some quick calculations of their students’ reading load and then assess whether or not your writing and other assignments (watching videos, preparing to lead discussion, etc.) can reasonably fill up the remaining expected hours of work per week.