Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What I Tell Graduating Seniors

A former student was kind enough to send me an email last week, which included the following:

Anyways, I'll never forget that talk I had with you before I left for college. I think you asked me what my major was and I said I had no idea because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. Your reply was...

My reply was that that's OK, and not at all uncommon. Heck, I'm thirty-thirteen (or was at that time) and I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up.

Those words really stuck with me and I've kept them in mind when exploring what I want to do with my future.

I really only give one piece of advice to graduating seniors. That advice is not to chase a buck, but to find something that really interests you in life, something you like, and pursue that. Do what makes you happy. We spend too many hours working to be doing something we don't truly enjoy. I guess making a lot of money might alleviate some of the unhappiness that would come with a job you don't really enjoy, but I myself would rather be happy. If you can be happy and make good money, well that's a bonus.

It's rewarding, though, when former students say that something I told them actually helped them. They probably have no idea how much I really care about them.


mazenko said...

Well, yes and no.

"That advice is not to chase a buck, but to find something that really interests you in life, something you like, and pursue that. Do what makes you happy."

Not everyone can or should do that.

As education critics continue to argue about who should go to college, with some decrying the loss of trade schools and the negative attitude toward associate’s degree programs, and others like Bill Gates preaching four-year colleges for everyone, Mike Rowe of Discovery Channel’s “World’s Dirtiest Jobs” presents an insightful commentary on the nature of “work” and how we might just be getting it all wrong.

The speech Mike Rowe gives centers around a pretty graphic description of the act of “lamb castration” in the life of a sheepherder in Craig, Colorado. It is rather eye-opening, not to mention eye-brow raising. Yet, the truly interesting part is as Right Wing Prof says, “the best argument against the “everybody needs to go to college” line I have seen.” Rowe describes his epiphany – with a great side-bar on a couple of terms from Greek tragedy – about the nature of “work,” or more importantly, the idea that in America we have declared war on work. We seek to avoid it, work less, retire earlier, etc., etc., etc. There seems to be an entitlement to work less and less, and we have no respect for much of the necessary work.

Rowe concludes he was mis-led and we might be wrong about the advice to “follow your passion.” He’s somewhat right. I followed my passion, rather than my pocketbook, and became a teacher, not a computer administrator. Despite three times the salary, life as a UNIX guru would make me miserable. That said, following passion is one route, but not the only one.

Ultimately, people should figure out who they are and be that person. Some people should follow their passions. Some should follow their strengths. And, some should just follow the market and go where their job takes them.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a few of my fave "demotivators:"






I realize you're working with high school kids, and I remember how dumb I was around that age, but I still think one can give advice which is a little more helpful. For one thing, even though I am a hardcore right-wing SUV-driving NRA member, I do believe that everyone is gifted to do something well. While I'm probably coming across like an emoting-when-I-should-be-thinking bleeding-heart lib (moron), I really do think it is possible for many people to start getting a sense of how they are gifted when they are teenagers, especially in their late teens. So instead of telling them to just follow their heart, or their passions, or their dreams, I think you could season that advice by telling them to listen when others compliment them, because that's one great way to get some clues regarding their gifts. They can also actively seek out different things which can open their eyes to their own gifts and special skills, by working, by joining the military, going abroad, or even something as mundane as taking a specialized assessment.

I can remember a couple of pivotal conversations I had with people who spoke truth based on their experience, which I greatly appreciated. When I was an undergraduate, I was contemplating a philosophy major, and one of my math instructors, who had an undergraduate degree in philosophy (in addition to his math degrees) suggested to me that it was practically impossible to make money with that kind of degree. This was a revelation, as in my incredible ignorance, I had never really considered life after graduation (I had a sheltered childhood). So I became a math major, which suited me better in so many ways.

Later, I had another pivotal conversation with one of my professors in graduate school. I was married, my wife was also enrolled in a different graduate program, and I was considering whether to go for a Ph.D. At this time, the percentage of recent math Ph.D. holders who were unemployed was hovering between 10-15% (circa mid-1990's), and my professor's wife was struggling to get her own Ph.D. He advised me to just get out of school and get a job, advice which I followed, and for which I will be forever grateful.

In both of these conversations, the advice was good precisely because it was the opposite of the "follow your heart" pablum that so often passes for advice today. You know many of these kids in your classes well enough to avoid giving them tepid, possibly unhelpful advice. I think you should be willing to be bolder and more direct.

No offense intended, of course.

Darren said...

I don't disagree with the two comments above, but I do think it's possible the commenters read too much into them and/or that I wasn't clear.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a touchy-feely, follow-your-bliss kinda guy. My advice was intended to be practical. I assume that people like doing what they're good at, that it brings them joy--so when I say "do what makes you happy", to me that's synonymous with "do what you're good at". It certainly isn't some rainbow-chasing pablum that I dish out.

But why *are* there so many songs about rainbows, and what's on the other side? :-) (bonus points for getting the reference)

When I say "don't chase a buck", I explain that I mean not to get a job at Target gathering shopping carts for $8/hr, and jump at a chance to move to Sears when you see a job for $9/hr, and then Kragen for $10/hr--because before you know it, you'll be 30 years old doing a job you just stumbled into because you chased a buck, not doing something that really makes you happy. I'm *not* saying they shouldn't try to make a living.

mazenko said...

Kermit in the Muppet Movie sing Rainbow Connection.

Darren said...

Good call. I won tickets and an LP for the movie from a local radio station back in high school. Just went and checked, and I still have the vinyl!

mazenko said...

Vinyl? Nice.

I bought the CD years ago - even before I had kids. What a classic.

"Moving right along ..."

Anonymous said...

Mike Rowe's talk from TED: