We might think of Sigmund Freud as the parent of western psychology, but William James (1842-1910) was a remarkable American who paved the way for scientific enquiry into the human mind and emotions. Born into an accomplished family, yet suffering from recurrent physical health problems, low mood and suicidal thoughts, his early life was dominated by feeling unable to find the right career for himself.
He started off his working life as an apprentice painter in a studio in New York; when this didn’t work out, he started medical school in Harvard, albeit in order to be a physiologist, not a doctor. A year into his medical studies, he left to pursue a naturalists’ scientific trip along the Amazon, which I imagine in 1865 must have been quite an undertaking! This new career also didn’t work out for him due to health reasons and eventually, after convalescing in Germany, he returned to his medical studies and qualified as a physician in 1869. He never actually practiced as a doctor, instead he began writing about philosophy and psychology; essentially he made up his own career path and ended up in a variety of senior Professorial roles at Harvard until his death.
I think William James’ own career journey is interesting for three reasons:
- His experimental, and hopeful, approach – When he was in the depths of despair, William James chose to do an experiment for a year. During this experiment, he decided to repeatedly turn towards the phrase ‘change is possible’, practicing as if this were true. I think this is important because of the experimental quality of his stance, and modern research shows that a curious, non-judgemental approach to life leads to greater wellbeing and more flexibility in our emotions. This approach also allowed for the possibility of hope, for a better future, to overcome our (and others’) inbuilt negativity biases. As a public health or medical leader, there are times when things can seem overwhelming. Knowing that ‘change is possible’ can make all the difference to beleaguered colleagues, and you can hold the vision of what could be possible in the future.
- He created a new career – A former doctor mentor of mine told me ten years ago, ‘your next job doesn’t exist yet; your next employing organisation hasn’t even been formed’. This really stuck with me as I have sought out innovative opportunities of my own. William James’ version of this is was a statement in a book that ‘the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave’. He created the whole field of psychology in North America and contributed worldwide to this new discipline, also transforming his own suffering as he sought to carve out his place in the working world. A significant proportion of modern future careers don’t even exist yet, especially those relating to technology. With a high probability of a hundred year life ahead of many of us, what could you be doing in 20-40 years’ time that doesn’t even exist yet?
- He showed us how to take the first step in resolving our career difficulties – A well known quote of William James is that ‘All religious and spiritual quests begin with the word ‘help’.’ Recognising that our working lives are not bringing us the meaning, purpose and satisfaction that we crave is the first step to getting ourselves unstuck and to moving forwards. What small actions might help you to improve your own situation?
It’s 107 years since William James died; I think that despite his initial setbacks and significant problems finding his place in the world, he had a very inspiring career which can help doctors, medical and public health leaders today. His legacy lives on. What will your own legacy be? I’d love to know what brings you meaning, purpose and satisfaction in your own working life – and whether William James has inspired you!
Image of William James from MS Am 1092 (1185), Houghton Library, Harvard University
Dr Fiona Day (MBChB, FFPH, CPsychol) is a Chartered Consultant Coaching Psychologist and former Board-level medical & public health leader. She is the UK’s leading Coach and Coaching Psychologist for senior doctors, medical and public health leaders. To find out more, please book a free, 15 minute Confidential Career Consultation with Fiona.