Motorcycles and Nuns: Why Calls to Happiness Fail When Vocation is at Stake

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Emily Horton, Contributor

Emily Horton (MBA ’23) leads with vulnerability. In this powerful essay, she shares a recent personal experience and draws out an important lesson for fellow HBS students. 

Stories are messy. They are complicated. Everyone has one shaped by a series of inflection points, and each point comes with its own conflict. We make some choices while other choices are made for us. We reach out for help amid these personal dramas, but today’s culture of acceptance often falls short at these times. How should we offer counsel to our friends and mentees when tough decisions need to be made? Are there other factors that matter apart from personal happiness?

I lost my soon-to-be fiancé to a motorcycle accident this summer. No, he did not die, but I do not have a ring on my finger. We had planned to get engaged before I moved to Boston to start at HBS, but God had different plans on June 13 when James* collided with a car that failed to yield to him on his Harley. A month in hospitals and another month in extensive therapies helped him recover from his traumatic brain injuries. Fortunately, I had taken the summer off before school, leaving BCG in May to have time to accomplish my personal projects. This time off allowed me to pivot into full-time care for James without hesitation. I stayed in the hospital with him for weeks. I lost all appetite, leading to a rapid 15-lb weight loss. I couldn’t sleep and turned to sleep aids. I got sick (not Covid-19, I checked). He improved greatly, passing significant milestones that signified that he would live, not be paralyzed, and his personality was still in his brain. Finally, after a month, I was able to bring him home.

Instead of happily being home, we argued. We argued about numerous things, including my move to Boston and my refusal to allow him to drive. I asked him not to rush the proposal since we were both not mentally well. He did not want me to go to school without his ring on my finger. His family failed to answer my calls for help. Nearly all ten of his siblings cold-shouldered me. I slowly changed from never wanting to leave his side to doubting our relationship’s foundation. I was faced with a decision that I desperately needed help with. I turned to my friends for advice, opinions, and validation of my actions. When I wanted to discuss the hardest decision of my life, I faced a common response: “do whatever makes you happy.”

That was not an answer. It was not even a helpful conversation to discuss the tribulations in my life. It didn’t assuage the deep anxiety I had about my situation. Leaving him wouldn’t make me happy, but neither was staying with him. Perhaps accepting the ring would have given me sparkly joy for a time, but that piece of hardware would never be able to address the “capital H” Happiness found in my true vocation for life. If I had followed the advice to “do whatever made me happy,” perhaps I would have a ring on my finger, but I’d also still feel the angst about our future. That advice is dangerous, as it could easily lead one down the wrong path just in search of that warm, fuzzy feeling.

My best friend from third grade entered the convent recently. This is not just any regular convent; it is the Discalced Carmelite Order in rural New Jersey. Joining the convent means that Clare will be cloistered—in seclusion for the rest of her life. No communication besides occasional letters and a behind-a-grate visit when I make it out to the convent. This summer, about two months before her entrance she told me about these plans. She experienced a transformational call to this vocation seven years ago when she was a sophomore in college but has hardly told anyone for years. At the time, her mother had a nuclear reaction. Clare tried to ignore her calling for years after that. She was ashamed of how it affected her mom, so she tried to live a “normal” life. She dated, she worked (and excelled) at several jobs, but she could not shake her vocation. Once more, she told her mother, resulting in her being kicked out of her home. 

Clare and her mother had been so close for most of her life. A single mom, she raised Clare to be a ballerina to the point of dancing for the American Ballet Theater. When Clare professionally danced there for a year and was repulsed by all the drama, she sought out the more traditional education route by going to college. Clare wrestled with this hardest decision of her life: follow her vocation of solitude and leave her mother behind in tragic sadness or continue to ignore her calling. After she decided to lead her life for God, she struggled explaining this vocation to people, especially non-Catholics. People frequently said to her: “do whatever makes you happy.”

When Clare and I talked this summer, we compared notes on our life-changing decisions, supported one another, and gave each other advice that may have been hard. Though our circumstances were not the same, the emotions surrounding our traumas and the enormity of the repercussions were on par. We both expressed frustration at the frequency and vapidity of the advice to “do whatever makes us happy.”

This phrase meets a recipient seeking advice, opinions, and discourse at critical junctures in life with a wall of deflection. While on the outside, it is a harmless, supportive comment, but we both came to realize that this is a piece of advice that fails to advise, opine, and validate in a superficial trifecta of vapidity. In this world where we are afraid to say something harmful or offensive through definitive opinions and conversation, people default into saying nothing at all. At least, nothing of substance.

I broke up with James and cried a lot. I still do. Clare entered the convent, and she also cried a lot. She probably still does, too. Our hearts have been broken by the decisions that we made. But these decisions had to be made. Our happiness in the present was a tradeoff to aligning our values with our vocations for the rest of our lives. 

In our lives at HBS and beyond, we will be called to make hard decisions. Our vocations in all areas of our lives will be governed by our underlying priorities, often called our values. These priorities will compete with each other and with our happiness. Specifically, we will need to weigh companies and careers with salaries, financial obligations, and calls to give back to the community in the upcoming recruiting season. This will not be an easy series of decisions for many. Further, as we lead organizations, there will be conflicts that need resolutions that will not make you happy. Our role as friends and mentors changes to have even more weight as our experience grows. We must accept that role with the greatest sincerity, understanding that a simple deflection of issues with a call to happiness is not a sufficient response.

It is a privilege to be a confidante. As we go forward into our academic year and our lives from there, I invite you to reflect when you are asked for advice. Do your friends and peers the honor of true reflection, collaboration, and discussion about what their vocation really means to them and spend time understanding the complexity of their situations. Does happiness govern your vocation? What does that mean to you?

*Names (apart from that of the author) have been changed for the sake of privacy.

Emily Horton (MBA ’23) is a proud Texan who graduated from Notre Dame in 2016. Prior to HBS, she worked in management consulting, specializing in aerospace and defense, but not before kicking it in steel toe boots and a hard hat for years as an engineer in construction.