On the Choice of a Profession – Summary

The essay, ‘On the Choice of a Profession’ was of great charm and originality. It was a posthumously discovered work of Stevenson. As the title of the essay suggests, it deals with the subject of choosing a right profession through wisdom and the affect of professional choices, made by man, on his personal life and his personality.


The essay opens with Stevenson responding, through mail, to the request that probably a dear one has asked for, in his letter to Stevenson. He says that the writer of the mail has requested for his advice on one of the momentous period in a young man’s life, when he is about to choose a profession for himself. Being highly modest at a young age, the seeker would be glad to gain some guidance in the choice that he should make while selecting a profession to go ahead with.

Stevenson says that it is very likely for the youngsters to seek advice from their elders and in the similar context even the elders are, in most likelihood, expected to give their advice as a word of guidance. Emphasizing upon the times that prevailed, Stevenson says that the youth very much get their queries answered systematically because the ‘practical people’ in the society boast of having a practical approach to life, which in their opinion, is a far superior and wholesome knowledge than anybody else could share.

Stevenson, referring back to the young advice seeker, says that it’s for the very ‘practical philosophy’ that he holds above the others, that the youth has expressed his wish to seek Stevenson’s guidance. Stating the question asked by the advice seeker, Louis says that the youth wishes to know about principles which are usually followed by wise men in making decisions regarding the most important events in their life, like the ones in deciding to choose the right profession. Louis says,

“What, you ask, are the principles usually followed by the wise in the like critical junctures?”

Louis says that due to the advice being asked for, he feels to be under immense pressure for it is one big responsibility to guide someone in the events that become the base of their life. Responding to the young man’s query, he says that he had been recollecting and examining his youth when he was at a similar juncture and what he did to decide upon choosing a profession for himself. Stevenson says, that he has also been questioning others to gain as much view to share with the young man. He says that with utmost sincerity he wishes to help and guide the young man with the systematic rule or principle that one ought to follow while choosing a profession. But to his dismay, he can only advice the young man that,

“…the wise, in these circumstances, act upon no principles whatever.”

Louis says that he knows that the young man would be disappointed to know about no principle to be existing, for he too was saddened to know it, yet only the truth is expected from Louis so he has no others choice but to confirm the fact that wisdom has nothing to do with the choice of a profession.

Making a sarcastic remark, Louis says that it is rather foolish of the people who acknowledge the existence of any such rule. If keen-heart wishes to know about a defined rule or a Socratic operation to follow in order to flourish in the profession of their choice, these highly enlightened minds’ go on to narrate the ready-made answers. These advices actually are of no help because they complicate the understanding of the advice seeker. These people who give advice are mostly those who have the least knowledge of the subject. The topic is of no consideration to them, yet they choose to guide people, thereby complicating things.

Stevenson says that only a person who is equipped with liberal knowledge of things should guide the ‘Anxious Enquirers’ of the Socratic persuasion, which will help him is sailing through the journey of life without thinking.

Stevenson begins to question the thought of people working in varied profession in a quest to understand their thoughts while choosing a profession for themselves. He says,

How should a banker know his own mind? It takes him all his time to manage his bank.

A person who chooses to become a banker, for instance, gets so engrossed in his profession that he spares no time for himself or to question his mind, as to what does he really wish to do. Similar is the case with pilgrims who walk in a group. They would simply choose to follow each other, without putting in any thought or logic to their action. They remain utterly indifferent to the fact that there is no leisure whatsoever in all that they do. They just follow one another and do things for the sake of doing them.

Louis is startled at the ignorance of the people who seem to be blindly following each other and burying themselves under the immense workload that they spare no time for themselves to breathe, let alone leisure. Expressing his concern, Stevenson says,

Am I going too far, if I say, that this is the condition of the large majority of our fellow-men and almost all our fellow women?

Louis expresses his concern that everybody seems to be inflicted with ‘the bandwagon effect.’ They are all blindly following each other without putting in any thoughts to their actions. Stevenson mentions the conversation which he happened to have with a banker. Throughout the conversation the banker confesses that he has not even a single moment to spare. He should be banking all the time and all this has sucked away leisure that he should experience while having his meal, at the least. On further questioning by Louis, the banker says that banking is his business, for a man’s business is his duty, his work. This response from the banker concerns Louis and he says that such a mentality needs to be attended to and corrected. He questions,

“Is a man’s business his duty? Or perhaps should not his duty be his business?”

Stevenson say that if he holds no responsibility in conducting a bank, then how can a banker be given this duty. Work should only be treated as a part of life, a business. His major business or concern should never be limited to his profession. Louis wonders as to who told the banker that the only concern of his life was banking. Was it the Bible? Louis doubts if the banker actually felt that the banks were a good thing. It would have been rather better had the banker stayed aside like a captain of a ship and let another man conduct the bank. Only one conclusion can be drawn by summing up these numerous queries. May be the person chose to be a banker because he was trapped.

Referring to the education system, Stevenson says that education is a form of harnessing people with a friendly approach. A person hardly knows to wear his pants, when a child, and he is sent off to school. No sooner the schooling gets completed than the young child is forced into the professional environment. In most of the cases, men are made to get married and are devoided of any opportunity to explore some vocational course to benefit them professionally.

As a child, man is taught to be punctual in school, must be updated with their course book, should stay hygienic and also learn to be social. As a young man, he should make friends and then finally take up the job with a bank. That is how man is trapped into the profession throughout. Stevenson says,

“He has been used to caper to this sort of piping from the first; and he joins the regiment of bank clerks for precisely the same reason as he used to go to the nursery at the stroke of eight.”

Hence, man is trained since childhood to lead a mechanized life. The proud parents, after having accomplished in trapping their child, sit back, relaxed, with a smile on their face and the smoking pipe kept aside.

“The trick is performed, …the wild ass’s colt is broken in; and now sits diligently scribing. Thus it is, that, out of men, we make bankers.”

It is a fight out there in the world which is full of competitive minds and guided by robust guardians. The parents get panicstricken even before a child is grown-up enough to understand and comprehend the cause of their worries. Soon, the very child, on becoming a grown up young man, finds himself competing others in the race to attain professional stability. Louis says that it may happen in the later years of his life, that man introspect his life and begin to analyze the reasons that led him to decide about the profession that he had been in all his life and the endless mad activities to sustain and flourish in that profession. The man may be pleased now with the choice of profession he had made years ago, for he ended up sparing himself from numerous things that could have gone wrong in his life, had he not chosen the profession he currently was in or it may also happen that the retrospection makes him feel bitter for putting himself in the situation that he was in, cursing what lead him get into the profession. Futile as it is, heading to such whims is vain.

Life is a journey; a journey by train. It is futile to debate over the needfulness of the particular journey because once we are set on it and have proceeded with the choices and decisions that we have made, the years seem to pass by quickly, just like the train that speeds through the places at a speed of sixty miles an hour, and there is no turning back. Stevenson says that it is futile to overthink on the opportunities lost or the other choices which were then available in the past and hence, such thoughts should not be fed.

A young man, on becoming a banker; the profession that he chose for himself, cannot claim to bank in leisure. He notices the beauty of his surrounding like cottages in a garden, angles by riverside, balloons flying high in the sky, but all these leisure moments are not for him. As a banker, he is booked and loaded with work for all his days and must continue to remain a banker. Had he been fortunate enough with various choices as a child during his school days or had he been surrounded by influential friends and counselors who were privileged enough to make a professional choice for themselves, there could have been a possibility of the young man doing the same for himself and make a self-driven choice of a profession of his liking. But unfortunately, Stevenson says that even those friends and counselors were trapped. For generations, men have been following each other blindly, just like the tame elephants getting trapped by the old group of tame elephants; everyone following in-line with the legacy. Education and practical philosophy has been limited to grudging, gaining rewards, getting punishments, forced, tortured and trapped.

Referring to Sir Thomas Browne’s (early seventeenth century) concept of the impact of geography on the lifestyle of a person, Stevenson says that geography is a considerable part of orthodoxy. Stating various examples about the direct relationship between the geography where one lives in and the inherent nature of a person, Louis says that a person born in London is by default considered to be a Protestant. The same person would have been an obvious Hindu had he been born in Benares, India. Louis say that

“Things are settled for us by our place of birth.

For instance, an Englishman drinks beer and gets it taste by feeling it in his throat. Whereas a Frenchman drinks wine and tastes it with the tip of his mouth. This way his single glass of wine lasts him for entire afternoon, whereas for an Englishman his glass of beer lasts him for short duration only. Hence, geography does have an impact on the traits held by a person. Elaborating further, Stevenson says that an English man takes bath with cold water, whereas a Frenchman takes occasional hot bath. Even the demographies are influenced by nationality. Generally, an Englishman has an unlimited family and dies young. Whereas a Frenchman lives to have three children and see them grow and settle in life. Hence he says,

“So this imperative national tendency follows us through all the privacies of life, dictates our thoughts, and attends us to the grave. We do nothing, we say nothing, we wear nothing, but it is stamped with the Queen’s Arms.”

Referring to Englishmen, Louis says that the imperative national influences guide our life. We do nothing, bring in no alterations, just participate in the pre-decided ways of life. He confesses that he’s an Englishman inside-out. There are no set rules by which Englishmen lead their young men, but get them through self understanding during the normal course of life, be it in an active or unconscious state.

Continuing his response to the young man’s mail, Stevenson says that he might question the reason as to why no wisdom exists, for till that very day, the young man’s father was trying to convince him about deciding upon an industrious, honest and lucrative employment. To this, Stevenson says that, with due respect, the young man’s father is a “professing Christian : the Gospel” therefore, that is how he conducts himself to the various situations. Stevenson says that it is a general conduct of every Christian parent to persuade their child into choosing a fruitful profession. Referring to another letter from a Christian parent which Stevenson has received, Louis tries to answer to the young man’s query about the persuasion scheme applied by a Christian parent in general.

A Christian father would write to his son to be wise in choosing a profession for life because a man’s choice of profession becomes his identity and it defines the worth of a man if he is any good to the world at large. If the choice of profession is correct, then he gets due acceptance in the society. But Stevenson feels unconvinced by this mentality of the social life. He says,

“But, my dear sir, what a principle of life! To “do good in the world” is to be received into a society apart from personal affection.”

This is ‘evil’ in Stevenson’s eyes. Why should one follow somebody else’s footsteps and land up in a profession that does not sufficiently meet one’s requirements. This is Antichrist and not something that Christianity believes in. There is no wisdom if speech and actions contradict each other. In his personal opinion, Stevenson says that a young man should not be at peace till he is capable enough to support his financial needs all by himself with financial stability. The person should build the foundation of his professional life on his own terms. Though one needs to decide the limit and the necessity of the amount of income that will suffice a person’s needs, one needs to decide whether he needs to “Make more? – Aye, or spend less?” The limit to have a specific income needs to be decided unless the person has sold his soul for money and wishes to be “one of us.” Stevenson elaborates on the kind of lifestyle one wishes to live and the kind of wealth one desires to own. He says,

A thoroughly respectable income is as much as a man spends. A luxurious income, or true opulence, is something more than a man spends. Raise the income, lower the expenditure, and my dear sir, surprising as it seems, we have the same result.

But the youth of today complains of hardships. Stevenson agrees to the many hardships and sacrifices a person is made to face irrespective of the profession one chooses. A banker’s serious privation is the need to sit in the bank for the entire day. So it goes with a painter too, though unfortunately, the painter is not bestowed with the respect he deserves for he is considered to be the meanest and most last among the contemporary men. A painter undergoes the hardships of painting the landscapes without wearing gloves, being drowned with drinking beer, living on minimal food, just so that he can carve a career in the profession of his choice rather than being ‘one of us’ and choosing a profession by following what others do.

But unfortunately people fail to understand the fact that these sacrifices made by them are done to earn their own rightful money. People fail to remember it. The money which they get as a cheque is nothing more than a medium to purchase pleasure. The difference lies in the monetary aspect only. A banker may get more number of cheques than a painter, but the amount of pleasure remains the same for both. Rather, for the painter, he gets to experience the pleasure directly at work when he keeps himself occupied with work that he truly likes. Moreover, unlike the banker, a painter gets his fortnight’s holidays too while doing the work that delights him throughout the year.

Stevenson says that all these details sound good in theory. But that is what the fact is. Stevenson suggests the young man to introspect and then decide on a profession. Stevenson feels that all this may not help the young man make his choice, but that is what the fact is. In his opinion, ‘choice’ is more of a negative than a positive action. In the act of choosing, we embrace one thing by refusing a thousand other options. They tend to imprison the various energies present within a person and ‘starves many affections.’ Stevenson says,

If you are in a bank, you cannot be much upon the sea. You cannot be both a first-rate violinist and a first-rate painter: you must lose in the one art if you persist in following both.

Such are the repercussions of making a ‘choice’ between things. A person himself is only equipped enough to make preferences in life. Nobody else, not even Stevenson, can decide upon the choices for somebody else. The reason behind this logic is that each person is God’s creation who is unique in his own ways. Hence, some generalized logic cannot be applied on others.

“God made you, not I. I cannot even make you over again.”

Stevenson mentions about a schoolmaster who would boost about knowing the field of interest of his students, “…poor schoolmaster, poor pupils!” says Stevenson, for the schoolmaster lived in a complete denial for he thought of being aware of what others wanted to do in their life, whereas the fact was that the students themselves were unaware of their own inner finding.

Stevenson says that if some one has no inclination towards something in life, then no outside force can instill that desire in his heart. Hence, such a person should be left to the course of life which would eventually take him to his destined taste in life. Though, if someone has the slightest inclination in life, Louis says that he would help them in it. Once again he says that he would leave those people in the hands of the destiny who have no wish in life whatsoever. He says,

“As for me, if you have nothing indigenous in your own heart, …I leave you to the tide, …Have you but a grain of inclination, I will help you. If you wish to be nothing, once more I leave you to the tide.”

Stevenson expresses his regret in not being able to give a conclusive response to the young man’s query. He believed that the young man has a lively future ahead with an admirable father and an excellent mother by his side. Yet Stevenson feels saddened at not being able to suggest a cent-percent response to his query. Though he feels happy and proud for the fact that he hasn’t held back any information of worth which can somehow help the young man make a decision regarding the choice of a profession. This subject doesn’t have much content that could be put forward. He believes that whatever profession the young man decides to take up, it won’t matter much for the rest of the world which is already working hard day-in, day out, to attain contentment in the choices they themselves had made regarding their professional life. Stevenson says that most of the people, out in the world, are happy and dishonest. Their minds and soul have stooped in the greed for money.

Stevenson concludes in his response to the young man’s mail, by wishing him not much stooping for money at the cost of self-esteem and continue to back in glory before the opportunities go against us.

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