A few years back, I was teaching a journalism class to a bunch of seniors some two weeks before graduation. On this particular day, half the class straggled in late, all of the latecomers looking as shell-shocked as if they had just been slammed in the face by a toxic dose of reality. Turns out, they had — in the form of some sort of exit-interview at the financial aid office. The topic of conversation: How much a month, repayable for the next, oh, 20 years?
Quickly morphing into mom mode, I tried to spread some hope — if only so we could get on with class. “Hey,” I said. “I’m just going to tell you the same thing your parents would: never trade your passion for a paycheck.” Stunned silence. Then hoots — and I mean that literally — of laughter. Finally, one kid spoke up: “My mother would never say that…”
All of which spurred me to write an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor, questioning where the dreams of childhood go to die. Here’s what I wrote then:
…I remember my oldest child’s “graduation” from kindergarten. She and her classmates, sporting construction-paper mortarboards and armed with an unsinkable sense of possibility and wonder, stood on tiptoe behind a microphone and told their adoring parents, videocams rolling, what they wanted to be when they grew up. There were ballerinas and ballplayers. Artists and writers. Firemen. Rock stars. Zookeepers.But what experience tells me is that, after four years of college, most of those kids will be doing none of the above. If history holds, they’ll head for a cubicle, doing something safe, risk free, but with a good starting salary.
Over the years, I’ve had conversations with students who tell me they not only have no time to pursue their passion – be it music or art or dance – but have never actually had the time to discover one. They mourn that fact. So do I.
What saddens me is that many students come to college to get a job, rather than an education. For them, the university is not so much a place where they experience the joy of discovery, but simply a means to yet one more end. To be sure, these are good kids: reliable, responsible, hard-working, and eager to please. Still, they are always worried about what comes next, and the grades it takes to get there. Rarely do they ever get too close to the edge, staying instead on their safe and proscribed five-year path.
Flash forward several years, throw in a hefty recession, and I still see kids, mainly bright young women, who stick with what’s safe, most often of necessity, despite the fact that they remain, well, undecided. But I’m starting to see glimmers of something else, too: students who actually use words like passion and purpose to define their future. University classes that lead students on a process of discovery. And the stories of the young women themselves.
There’s the new grad who, when a high-paying job offer dissolved last year after the corporate heavyweight went bankrupt, decided to follow her heart into the dance studio, where she hopes to learn how she can eventually use her talent for choreography to empower at-risk kids through dance. Or the well-paid young professional who took a leave of absence from her job to work 17 hour days to run a field office for the Obama campaign. Back home, months later, a family friend questioned her about the experience. She listed her tasks: cold-calling volunteers, knocking on strangers’ doors, entering data late into the night, daily conference calls. “Did you like calling volunteers?” the friend asked. “Well, no,” she answered. “What about knocking on doors?” the friend continued. “God, no!” she howled, “that was even worse!” But overall? “I loved every minute of it.”
Well, of course she did. Call it a sense of purpose, which may, as Shannon suggested on Monday, be one antidote for the choice conundrum : a sense that, when choices rear their scary heads, it’s okay to zig instead of zag if that’s where your heart leads.
Sure, there are any number of issues here that might make Mr. Safe Path the only feasible alternative: Loans to pay off. Living expenses (And surely, there is true nobility in working to put food on the table.) An inflexible workplace that flashes in neon: All or Nothing. (Full disclosure: back in the day when my kids were young, I chose to work as a freelance journalist. I was taken less seriously by full-time reporters because I worked at home, while a lot of the stay-at-home moms I knew either found me uppity – or kicked me out of carpools. Well, there’s also my driving. Whatever…) There’s even the uncomfortable fact that for some of us, no matter how much we yearn to zig, we’re just not good enough.
According to a recent piece in the Washington Post, a report by the non-profit Center for Women’s Business found that “women-owned businesses generate about $3 trillion in revenue and employ 16 percent of the workforce, making them significant players in the national economy…”
Call me rash, but I have to think that a lot of those women who started those businesses had the guts — and the drive — to follow their hearts. Which leads me back to this sense of purpose business: It’s something to take seriously, yeah? And maybe yet another way in which the architects of the change — not to mention all those square pegs — might save us all.
I’ll bet you have your own stories. Share.