Monday, May 7, 2012

Do What You Love, Love What You Do: Chasing the Carrot and Education

Last night, my husband went to Target to buy a flash drive. He got a 4GB one for twelve dollars. I remember the first time I went to buy a flash drive. I don't remember the exact size or price, but I know it was a lot smaller and cost a lot more.

It made me think about how rapidly things are changing. My daughter is learning to say words when she looks at pictures in a book. One of her books features a rotary phone. The other day she pretended to pick it up and put it to her ear, so she understands that it is--somehow--a phone, but she's never seen me talk on a rotary phone. In fact, the only phones in our house are iPhones, and they look nothing like those pictures. She'll grow up having no real idea of the meaning behind the phrase "the phone is off the hook."

From Pete Prodoehl
All of this change got me thinking about education. It's finals week, and several of my students are graduating. I am so proud to say that many of them are going on to graduate programs of their choosing with full funding. They've worked hard, and they've earned these bright futures. 

As someone who works with underrepresented populations who want to go to graduate school, I've seen a lot of students try to force themselves down paths that they think are the roads to success. But when I think about those phones, those flash drives, the way the landscape of our workforce and technology are so rapidly changing, I have to wonder how wise such prognasticating really is. 

I always think of this "Did You Know" video that looks at our rapidly changing world (which is, ironically, out of date, even though it was just made three years ago):

The part that always sticks with me is the line that "The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 . . . did not exist in 2004. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't exist yet . . . using technologies that haven't been invented . . . in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet.

I can see how that can be pretty daunting for the educator/student relationship. Either one of them could say, "Well, what's the point then?" I could decide, as an educator, that nothing I teach my students can possibly be relevant, that I have no hope of seeing the future and adequately preparing my students for their future careers because I have no idea what those careers will look like. An outlook like this one could make college look pretty irrelevant. 

And for students who are chasing the hot jobs, a statistic like this one is grim. Every year there are reports on which career fields are in demand and where the money is, and every year those majors get flooded with fresh blood chasing those positions. When you equate college training to a particular career and careers are shifting faster than college students can graduate, you're left with little hope. 

But there's a different way to look at this. I actually find it rather freeing. 

Look, I can't teach you how to do the job you're going to do because neither one of us knows what that job is. What I can teach you is how to communicate clearly, how to write effectively, how to think critically. And you know what? You need those things. You need those things whether you're going to be  developing the newest web platforms, zipping around in flying cars to your intergalactic business meeting, or writing poetry. You need skills that will prepare you for approaching problems, and I can help you find those perspectives even if I don't know what those problems will be. 

And you know what else? You need to do what you love. 

I know it sounds cliche, and I know I sound out of touch. 

Trust me. I'm not. As a first-generation college student who married another first-generation college student, I know how expensive an education can be. (Do you want to see the student loan debt from my husband's JD? The answer is no. No, you don't. It's depressing).  I know that you want to make sure there's still a carrot dangling at the end of this stick. I know that you think that means becoming pre-med even if you've failed every chemistry class you've ever taken. 

Carrot and stick
From bthomso

I see it all the time. I'll have a first-gen college student in my office telling me how much she loves writing. She'll have straight A's in history and English, but she's pre-med because her parents told her she needs to be a doctor. That's where the money's at, they say. So she keeps moving along. She ekes out a C in her early-level required classes, but once she gets to organic chemistry, it's a wrap. She's failing. She fails it once and re-enrolls. She's failing again. 

I know that we get caught up in these definitions of success that are arbitrarily assigned from the outside. Just a few weeks ago, The Daily Beast published a list of the thirteen "Most Useless Majors." What made the list? Anything in the fine arts, architecture, graphic design, philosophy and religious studies, English literature and language, anthropology, journalism, political science. 

Right. Our society has never gained anything from philosophy you know. And art? Who needs that? 

You know why these things are "useless"? Because they're not tied to a specific career. They are fields that focus on ways of knowing, methods to approach the world, and thought.

That's not to say that you shouldn't major in biology or chemistry or computer science or whatever you think is a good fit. The truth of the matter is, the only "hot" field is the one that gets you fired up. It doesn't matter how many sub-par chemistry classes you slog through on your way to med school; if you're not good at it, how far do you really think you're going to get? Are you really going to be able to compete with all those other people who thought medicine was the hot ticket item, some of whom are acing every class?

All you can do is what you do best. Stop trying to pick the path that leads to the biggest carrot. The carrot's going to move. If you move with it, you've lost all the experience you gained on your first track, and now you're behind the people who started out on this one to begin with.

This is true for anyone. If you're getting an undergraduate degree, a graduate degree, or simply taking a couple classes in your spare time; you should do what you love. You'll do better, you'll enjoy it more, and you'll be a better asset to your field. But it's especially true for the students I work with who are planning to pursue PhDs. If you are going to get a PhD in something, you have to love that thing. You have to breathe, sweat, and cry that thing. You have to want to know that thing down to your bones. Because I promise you--I promise you--somewhere along the line to that thing, someone is going to make you hate it. Not forever, if it's really what you love, but for a while. There will be days when you question your very essence, and on those days, all you can fall back on is passion. 

Do what you love, love what you do, and someday the carrot will be at the end of your path.


  1. I agree with you 100% right here: "What I can teach you is how to communicate clearly, how to write effectively, how to think critically." *That* is what is usefull in every field. Why can we grade papers on how to solve a rubic cube, wether ford or chevy is the best truck, and what a work of art we have never seen means. English is the one field that crosses *ever* field. Tech schools like Devry and Phoenix are fads, like Atkins and low-carb, but a well-rounded education will help you adapt to whatever career path you find yourself on!

  2. When I was getting my degree in English Writing, I had people snickering behind their hands at it, asking me if my parents really supported that decision, etc. etc.

    And yet somehow I'm gainfully employed doing a job that I love (web stuff for a major non-profit) and the fact that I can put coherent sentences together because I know how to write well is helpful every single day.

    I also think sometimes that a college degree is partially a piece of paper telling employers that you can toe the line and are willing to put up with a modest amount of bullshit and rules and regulations and can turn out work that meets those requirements.

  3. Up until this morning I would have applauded and agreed wholeheartedly. Then I read this:

    and now I just feel sick to my stomach-- as I'm months away from finishing a PhD in the (apparently useless) field of anthropology. Yikes.

    1. Yikes. That is a disheartening article.

      I think it speaks more to the (perhaps antiquated ways) that we frame what you can do with a graduate degree. There are not enough full-time professor positions and too many graduates who have had their eyes set on the few positions that are available.

      While stats like these may support an argument for not going on to graduate school, I still don't think it supports trying to chase a degree in something you don't love just because it happens to be the hot job.

  4. That's great advice for those who know what they love. Me? I'm 30 years old and I've tried a number of things, and I just don't think there's a career out there for me to love. I like camping, so I tried being a camp counselor. Turns out I don't like being responsible for kids. I like video games, so I thought I could be a game designer. Turns out I have no talent for programming. I love animals, but I found out after volunteering at a shelter that I'm just too sensistive for a job with animals. In the end, I got an associates degree from a "fad" tech school and I work a boring cubical job but it pays me enough to cover my mortgage, enough of my wants, and I get three weeks of vacation a year. Not everyone has a calling. And that doesn't even take into consideration how many people just don't have the opportunities to find a career that they actually enjoy (if everyone did, who would be janitors or work at mcdonalds? our society isn't structured to give *everyone* opportunities). So for most people, I think the advice to do what you love is not just trite, but irrelevant.

    1. I'm certainly not saying that this is true for everyone, but I work with students who are entering into graduate degree programs. They're committing themselves to YEARS of training, and if it's not something they love, they shouldn't do it because they're going to be competing against people who do love it. My advice isn't meant to be trite, and I recognize that there are a lot of factors in play as far as making the life that you want (as you mention, your job is enough to pay for your "wants," so possibly one of those is the thing you love? Your love doesn't have to be your career.) But since I am working specifically with students who are trying to find what they love out of careers and that are planning to go to graduate school to find that path, I think this advice is very relevant.

  5. Amen!

    We only get one shot to live this life and it is sad to know that there are people out there who do things they do not love; who are forced to spend their lives according to others' expectations; who do not have freedom to make a decision on their own.

    Well, success is still possible by learning to love what we do, but it wouldn't be as easy and effortless as when you already love what you do to start with.