Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Give your vocation the underwear test

I saw a post at First Thoughts which opined [I think wrongly] that religious vocations are down because people have lost the will to make commitments, and the writer references Thomas Aquinas on the subject ... St. Thomas implies that the mere experience of feeling called is an indicator that one is indeed called, not merely that one should consider whether they are being called.

I like the alternative method Jonah Lehrer mentions in one of his recent posts at Wired's The Frontal Cortex ....


Love Is The Opposite Of Underwear
- by Jonah Lehrer

On Monday, I had the honor of delivering a convocation speech at Earlham College. I won’t clog up this blog with the full text of my talk, but I thought a few readers might be interested in the brief excerpt ......

[H]ow can we sort the useful long-term goals from the futile ones? How can we make sure that all of our struggle and practice and sacrifice will be worth it? Well, here’s my advice: ask yourself if the goal passes the underwear test.

Let me explain. One of the most deep seated features of the human mind is that it quickly takes things for granted, becoming numb to the predictable perceptions and pleasures of the world. Just think of your underwear. Do you feel it? Are you conscious of it? Of course not. That’s because you’ve adapted to the feel of underwear, habituated to the touch of cotton on your bum.

And this isn’t just about underwear. Psychological adaptation also explains why the first bite of chocolate cake is better than the second, and the second is better than the third. It explains why the first time you use that new iPhone you’re pretty excited, but before long it will just be another thing in your pocket. And then, a few weeks after that, you’ll start complaining that your phone (your phone!) can only hold 10,000 songs or that it downloads streaming videos from Netflix so slowly. The delight has vanished, replaced by the usual dissatisfaction. This is because our brain is designed to be ungrateful, every pleasure a fleeting thing.

What does this have to do with grit and long-term goals? Well, the only dreams worth pursuing are those that pass the underwear test. These are the pursuits that don’t bore us, even after we put in 10,000 hours of practice. They contain the kind of subtle thrills that don’t get old, that we don’t adapt to, that keep us motivated and interested for years and years at a time. Sure, there will be frustrations along the way, but these frustrations don’t feel permanent, which is what allows us to keep on working and learning and improving. Because that’s what it takes to succeed, to accomplish something interesting. Perhaps you want to invent the cure for malaria, or bake a perfect baguette, or create the next Facebook. Whatever – don’t apologize for your obsession. Just be grateful you are obsessed with something, that you’ve found a goal worth getting gritty over. Because if your goals ever feel tedious, if you find them as unnecessary as that last bite of chocolate cake, then you’re never going to put in the necessary work. Grit requires passion. Grit requires love. And love is just another name for what never gets old. Love is the opposite of underwear.



Blogger Deacon Denny said...

One of the enjoyable links on the Wikipedia page for Lehrer was a short 7 minute piece from "The Colbert Report," about his book, "How We Decide." Besides the humor, the interview brought out Lehrer's point: that THINKING ABOUT (OUR) THINKING can be very useful.
Actually, that's what he did in the piece you posted. He advised people who were trying to decide on long-range goals to "think about" what they were thinking about...the "underwear test" was a simple but delightful little exercise. It might help us determine the motivation behind a particular attraction.
Interesting. I can think of a seminarian that I'll forward this to...

10:34 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Denny,

Jonah has some interesting video lectures at too, if you're interested ... ... he's really a brain :)

12:54 AM  

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