Thoughts from Dr. Joe: How often do we ask if our path has heart?

College applications
As college-age students consider what they want from their education, writer and counselor Joe Puglia suggests they contemplate what it is they want from life and what kind of an individual they hope to become.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Within weeks, the class of 2023 will be off on their perspective voyages to find out if the world is round. Typically, during this time of year, eager students and pensive parents ask me questions regarding college and academic readiness, curriculum and how to pick a major.

I understand the need parents and students have for practical answers, but a student’s preparation for the real world is not found in solutions but instead evolves through a journey fraught with uncertainty and exploration. Students cannot wish themselves into becoming a defined character or sit on a pile of books. Instead, they must make themselves into the character they hope to be. They have to go out into life. That’s where the chance is; there and only there.

Sometimes I feel like Obi-Wan Kenobi. Do you remember him? Luke Skywalker’s consigliere in “Star Wars.” I wasn’t trained on a lightsaber, but I can offer a few thoughts.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There are no definitive truths, but I don’t believe the purpose of a college education is to develop expertise to find a successful and lucrative profession.


Regarding education, to be or not to be is not the question. To be a lawyer, a doctor or a chief executive are excellent goals, but they are incidental to a greater purpose of an education, which is to become more as an individual, or not to become more. That’s the question we should ask of our students. It’s about becoming a better version of yourself. It’s a quest that has no end.

So, it’s not a problem of finding one’s self during four years of college. The self is not what one finds; it’s something that one creates.

The process of becoming a moral and productive adult is of utmost consequence. According to philosopher Joseph Campbell, it is the literature of the spirit that sustains us. My thoughts in a recent column spoke of the liberal arts as the literature of the spirit.

Saint Augustine in “Augustine’s Confessions” tells us “we go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the vast compass of the ocean, and at the circular motions of the stars and they pass by themselves without wondering.” His philosophy purports that our development is not so much about our external aspirations but by wondering about ourselves.


But college is not all philosophy. One of the best pieces of literature about selecting a major is not about choosing a major. “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” by Carlos Castaneda is a springboard where Castaneda takes the everyday perspectives of the sorcerer Don Juan to new horizons of thought. A central theme attempts to answer the question: Am I doing what I should be doing with my life? Am I on the right path? And, more importantly, how do I know the right path when I find it?

Castaneda captures Don Juan’s methodology as to how one should make the decision: “Look at every path closely and deliberately. Does this path have heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere, but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. A path with a heart makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it.”

How often do we ask ourselves if our path has a heart? When the goal is worthy and makes one happy, one should continue on that path.

Maybe the question to ask is not what you want to be but what you want from life.

Joe Puglia is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at

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