On Feeling, Thinking, Liberal Arts, & Careers

I recall an MTBI-fueled fever sweeping my undergrad campus in early 2010: everywhere, I heard mutterings of thinking or feeling, introverted or extroverted, oh yeah, well, what’s your percentage? There was a genuine excitement attached to this new method of categorizing ourselves, and I was not immune.

I boasted the ENTJ assignation, and I was particularly proud of that T—or, more specifically, I was proud that it wasn’t an F. I wanted to be associated with Thinkers rather than Feelers, because (in my mind) feelings were responsible for rash decisions, poor judgement, and reckless behavior. I was only in my second semester of college, and I was clinging to a Vulcan degree of emotional austerity because I believed smart people—academic people, professional people—were not ruled by feelings.

Let’s leap to the present: I’m nearing 27, working on an MFA in Creative Writing, and I’m enrolled in a professionalization course for career routes alternative to academia. A few days ago, I took the StrengthsQuest and TypeFocus tests as part of the course requirements, and I was not at all surprised to see an F pop up in my new MTBI results—with quite a steep percentage, too. My past self would no doubt cringe to learn that seven years and English degree (and a brief stint harvesting zucchini in Scotland) have turned me into a Feeler, but my present self is deeply contented with this aspect of my identity. I suspect I was just as Feels-y back then, too—I just didn’t want to acknowledge it.

According to my TypeFocus results, ENFJs “understand people well…[they] are interested in theories of human behavior and want to learn more.” They also “want to help” when others are in distress, and they “typically bring out the best in others.” I can see these traits manifesting in my Top 5 StrengthsQuest Themes: Individualization, Intellection, Input, Learner, and Communication. I also see the error in my younger self’s thinking: academic training is not at odds with a deeply emotional mindset, nor do feelings necessarily conflict with careful, calculated decision making. My liberal arts degree taught me to seek out and reflect upon details, to be inquisitive in the face of assumed truths, and to make concrete the latent connections between seemingly disparate bodies of knowledge.

At 19, I did this with literature; now, I see the scope for applying these techniques on a much larger scale.

When I made the decision to go to graduate school for an MFA in Creative Writing, my family assumed I’d finally gotten back on track to achieving my longheld dream of becoming an English Professor.

“Yeah,” I told them. “Maybe.”

This response was understandably concerning. What else could I possibly do with a master’s degree in something as unemployable as poetry? I’d held a number of jobs between finishing undergrad and going back to school; I’d been a webmaster, a farmhand, an editor, a restaurant manager, and a legal clerk. My time away from a college campus proved my employability, so I told my family that my decision to seek a poetry degree was less a career move and more an effort to seek personal growth. “I got good jobs without an MFA,” I assured them. “I’ll still get good jobs with one.”

At the time, I thought I’d matured well beyond the naiveté of my undergraduate fixation on Smart Practices. Now, I can still see the marks of well-intentioned ignorance in my assurances that an MFA would have no impact on my career prospects if I didn’t want to work in academia. In her 1996 essay, “Defy The Space That Separates,” poet Adrienne Rich writes:

We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.

I’m only halfway through this degree, but in that time I’ve learned how crucial it is that my future career choices prioritize kinship and connection. Individualization, the top result on my StrengthsQuest assessment, has to do with “figuring out how people who are different can work together productively,” and I’m quite confident that I would not be able to do so without both a healthy amount of emotional intelligence and the patience and flexibility of a liberal arts academic.

What kinds of careers does that include? Well, I might decide to seek a development position for a nonprofit; I might want to tutor adult learners in a literacy center; or perhaps I want to work in PR for a government official who shares my values. Idealist.org has proven to be an extremely helpful resource to me as I navigate the contemporary career sphere. Likewise, the Wandering Map exercise originating in Katherine Brooks’ You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career helped me put name to a few other skills and values developed over the course of my life (as it turns out, I am extremely good at budgeting).

Personality tests and skill assessments are a bit like career tarot. While I don’t necessarily believe an ancestral superconsciousness is responsible for the placement of The Hanged Man during a reading, I do think tarot is an interesting method of restructuring our perspectives on things we may or may not understand about ourselves. I feel similarly about things like StrengthQuest, MTBI, and TypeFocus. To those fixated on certain life-directions, I have this bit of advice: allow yourself to look at your skills and values through another lens. You might be surprised by how capable you are of flourishing in alternative enterprises.

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