The Existential Roots of Career Choice


At the end of every hard-earned day

People find some reason to believe.

- Bruce Springsteen

hat do I want to be when I grow up? As lovely and freeing as that question may sound, if truth be told few of us are intoxicated by it. The very vagueness of it fills us with a premonition of humiliation as we imagine our inability to answer this most basic question successfully. For nowhere in life do we experience more fully the tragedy of our estrangement from the givens of existence than in the process of choosing a career. This is one of those tricky junctures in our maturing process when it is helpful to have at least an elementary existential understanding of why life is difficult. No matter our age, when we are standing in the present time, looking toward a professional future that is, for the most part, ours to design, we get a big, big dose of what Sören Kierkegaard referred to as “fear and trembling.”

Choosing a career is arguably the most consequential choice we make in life. It sets the tone for almost everything that follows and it puts us in a particular position relative to fate. In other words, when we choose a career, we are choosing a road – one that will take us toward specific groups of people, places and things that will greatly limit our range of further choices. So familiarity with and skill around the existential given of responsibility is a nonnegotiable precursor to career choice. There is material here and here for exploring this established truth about human existence that we are, to borrow from Sartre, our choices.

But the given most germane when it comes to career choice is, of course, meaninglessness. As human beings, we understand that it is up to each of us to decide what is meaningful, most especially when it comes to finding our employment bliss. So before we embark on the exercises designed to help us do just that, it might be a good idea to spend a little time reviewing the existential given of meaninglessness and how it relates to the third dimension of time – the future.

The given – meaninglessness

Of all the existential givens, meaninglessness is the one that requires the most profound writing skills. How does one write cogently about the grandest of all human endeavors – finding within ourselves both the courage and the wisdom to use up our tiny amount of time on earth in pursuit of something that may or may not turn out to be meaningful to us? Let me lean here on a couple of existential writers who described this process of creating an essence out of our existence. Albert Camus, although he indulged in the young man’s penchant for pessimism, wrote stunning words that can be distilled to illustrate admirably the essence of creating an essence.

Living, naturally, is never easy.

You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit.

We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.

The mind’s first step is to distinguish what is true from what is false.

So as long as the mind keeps silent in the motionless world of its hopes, everything is reflected and arranged in the unity of its nostalgia. But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles: an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding.

This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.

From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all. But whether or not one can live with one’s passions, whether or not one can accept their law, which is to burn the heart they simultaneously exalt – that is the whole question.

How poetically Camus tells us that we tend to be cocooned by habitual wishful thinking about the generosity of our cosmos and, if that illusion is shattered, we are catapulted into a relationship with the absurd truth that we will never get the answers from the universe that we so desperately seek about what is best for us. Existential thinkers refer to this dreadful state as groundlessness, for there is no place of generic meaningfulness upon which to stand with certainty as we gather our wits about us to design our lives. We float on an ocean of endless possibility with no land to provide a starting place from which to launch ourselves. Everywhere we turn, for every aspect of our lives, there is nothing put in place for us. We are insignificant in the face of this vastness. Read: hosed.

It is a brave soul indeed who can face this void and start picking out promising possibilities to try. But that brave act is exactly what creating an essence requires, for as Karl Jaspers writes: Possibility is the form in which I am permitted to know what I am not yet, and the preparation for Being itself. And, from the poet Bruce Springstein: At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.

The component of time – the future

The future exists, of course, only in our dreams for it is time which is not yet. And, as such, it is more than an undiscovered country – it is an unimagined country. The future is the science fiction version of our current lives and we are the ones who must try to envision it. If we truly attempt to do so, we will uncover the terrifying truth that when we face the future we are facing infinity. What can we do when we are faced with the unfathomable infinite? We can do what humans were designed to do – we can philosophize. Let me excerpt Jaspers to illustrate this vertiginous truth:

Philosophizing is the activity of thought itself, by which the essence of man,
in its entirety, is realized in the individual man. This activity originates from life
in the depths where it touches Eternity inside Time, not at the surface
where it moves in finite purposes, even though the depths appear to us
only at the surface. It is for this reason that philosophical activity is fully real
only at the summits of personal philosophizing…the inner action by which
I become myself.

Because our future doesn’t exist until and unless we create it philosophically, we have tremendous responsibility when it comes to determining how boring or inspiring our essence will be. Luckily, there is a starting point from which to launch our philosophizing. Sartre gives us a clue.

Thus the Future is “I” inasmuch as I await myself as presence to being beyond being.
I project myself toward the Future in order to merge there with that which I lack;
that is, with that which if synthetically added to my Present would make me be what I am.

We can narrow the focus of the philosophical exploration of our future by sighting off those points of our lives at the surfaces that hint at the depths of our becoming – those points being those things we feel we lack. Fascinating, right? We enhance our ability to design our being by anchoring our future imaginings to our present longings.


I don't understand what you want me to do with the information provided in this article. It's not that I don't believe it, it's that I don't know what to do with it.

Superb question! I’ve written elsewhere in some detail about how humans are designed to handle difficult truths and why they are better served when they do so. Let me explain here briefly the nugget of those intertwined beliefs...


The future – time which is not yet – is available perpetually inside our heads ready to be fashioned into potential desirable iterations, and we can best succeed in that process if we start our speculation by attending to what we want but do not yet have. When we form a solid future memory with our philosophizing about what great experiment might best be next, it serves as an emotional grappling hook anchoring us firmly to one particular future that we believe is worthy of pursuit.

If our job is to find our next magnificent obsession, our best chance of doing so requires a robust future memory.

Dust off your philosophical skills in preparation for an in-depth, existential exploration of what needs to be added to your current life that would make it delightful enough to want to live it all over again. Specifically, it is important to reject both a too bleak and a too cavalier relationship with this pairing of the future and meaninglessness. Somewhere between Camus and Pollyanna is a place of balance with respect to creating a meaningful future.

Next up: Cultural Myths That Clutter Career Selection

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.