Palmer reflects on his unconventional career path in these pages, as well as in previous classics such as Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (which had a 20th anniversary edition published in 2017). He was an ‘influencer’ before the term existed. Areas that have become fashionable in business and leadership books, such as listening, vulnerability, convening, the search for meaning and purpose, and the power of teaching and learning, have long been part of his repertoire. As in Chip Conley’s recent book Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, which I wrote about earlier this month, Palmer emphasizes the importance of intergenerational work/understanding/community, and should appeal to readers in a variety of age groups.
On the Brink of Everything has also received some terrific media coverage, including:
It’s not easy to classify On the Brink of Everything. It’s partly a memoir, as well as a reflection/making sense of the meaning of his life; an examination of the benefits of a rich inner life; and a tribute to his influences. It is deeply spiritual as well as political and sociological. He writes in his trademark clear, eloquent style, in a mostly genial tone, though on some pages he shows he can be a tough customer. He includes his own poetry, plus that of Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, May Sarton, and others. The 20th century Trappist monk-author Thomas Merton is a commanding presence, both in Palmer’s reflections, and in numerous quotations from Merton’s work. Palmer also includes explanatory openings to each section, in some cases explaining the back story behind the essays and poems within. One section is an edited transcript of his 2015 commencement address at Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado.
Palmer’s life has consisted of a series of reinventions. Some of his most crucial discoveries about careers and vocations have been by the process of elimination, discovering what he wasn’t best suited to do. He’s forthcoming about his shortcomings and failures, but also points out how they have led to unexpected successes. After college, he thought he might have a calling to the clergy, and studied for a year at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, but ultimately decided against that path. Yet spirituality and religion have played a major role in his life and work, in his teaching, and leading retreats and workshops. He had early hopes of one day becoming a university president, ultimately realizing it would be a disastrous choice. After Berkeley, he moved to Washington, D.C., for five years, both to teach at Georgetown University and also to work as a community organizer, only to realize that the latter wasn’t the best use of his talents, and that traditional, tenure-track teaching wasn’t for him, either.
I was especially interested to read that he arrived in D.C. in July, 1969, a couple of months before I became a freshman at American University. Perhaps our paths crossed unknowingly during those five years, especially when I was on campus at Georgetown to do radio shows, beginning in 1972, for its very cool campus station, WGTB-FM. And I like to think that he might have been a reader of the two local ‘underground’ arts publications I wrote for during those years, Woodwind and Unicorn Times.
The unpredictability of timing and planning is one of the central themes of the book. Palmer writes about becoming a first time “accidental author,” at 38. He has a PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, yet only sporadically pursued a traditional academic life. Even though he became famous for teaching, he has taught in more of a freelance, on-the-road way. His career approach has been quite entrepreneurial, especially as founder and now senior partner emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal. He’s recently teamed with the excellent singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer (whose work also appears in the new book), to start an organization called the Growing Edge. Palmer and Newcomer are also contributors to Krista Tippett’s On Being blog, and they were named as part of “10 Spiritual Leaders for the Next 20 Years” by Spirituality & Health magazine last October.
Many people are concerned about work prospects and opportunities after 50, yet Palmer is a role model, as many of his best-selling books appeared after that age. And although he has worked at and partnered with various institutions, his career has largely been self-created. The recognition he continues to receive serves as an inspiration to keep creating and developing one’s talents at any age.