Counselor and client now turned their focus to envy. Symons was a particular admirer of this feeling and lamented the way that its useful role in alerting us to our possibilities was too often censored out of priggish moralism. Without envy, there could be no recognition of one’s desires. So Symons gave Carol another ten-minute slot to list everyone she most regularly envied—adding on his way out of the room that he didn’t care for niceness and that if there were not at least two names of close colleagues or friends on her piece of paper, he would know that she had been evasively sentimental.
Watching these sessions on closed-circuit television, I came to feel that what was unfolding in the damp room next door was of historical significance. Symons had devoted his life to paying an exceptional degree of attention to the most minor feelings of another person. After millennia in which action had been privileged over reflection, and intelligence primarily restricted to the discussion of arid abstract ideas, an ordinary human’s everyday confusions had at last found a forum in which they were being accorded the methodical consideration they deserved. Among all the other, better-established businesses catering to elements far down our hierarchy of needs—businesses offering assistance with gardening and cleaning, accountancy and computers—here, finally, was an enterprise devoted to the interpretation of the critical, yet troublingly indistinct, radio transmissions of the psyche.
Above Symons’ desk was a photograph of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculpture entitled Atlas Slave, from the collection of the Accademia Gallery in Florence. In this block of stone, arrested midway on its journey from raw material to museum piece, an as-yet-headless human figure is seen struggling to emerge from a chunk of marble. The partially completed object appealed to Symons as a metaphor for what he believed that career counseling might do for all of us: in Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, help us to become who we are.
It is strange and regrettable that in our society something as prospectively life-altering as the determination of a person’s vocation has for the most part been abandoned to marginalized therapists and rather dubious “gurus.” Career counseling, which might have been one of the most admired professions on earth, struggles to attain the status open to a travel agent.
But perhaps this neglect is only an appropriate reflection of how little such gurus can in the end make sense of human nature. An understandable hunger for answers from potential clients may tempt many of them to overpromise, like creative-writing teachers who out of greed or sentimentality will imply that all of their students could one day produce worthwhile literature, rather than frankly acknowledge the troubling truth, anathema in democratic society, that the great writer, like the contented worker, remains an erratic and anomalous event, no less immune to the methods of factory farming than a truffle.
The true range of obstacles in the way of unlocking our potential was more accurately acknowledged by the German sociologist Max Weber when, in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” (c. 1918), he described Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as an example of the sort of creative and healthy personality “who appears only once in a thousand years.”
For the rest of history, for most of us, our bright promise will almost always fall short of being actualized; it will never earn us bountiful sums of money or beget exemplary objects or organizations. It will remain no more than a hope carried over from childhood, or a dream entertained as we drive along the motorway and feel our plans hovering above a wide horizon.
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