(As printed in the Dayton Daily News, June 1, 2014.)
High school and college graduation speeches often revolve around some variant of the advice to “Follow your passion.” The theme has enduring popularity because it sounds so liberating and affirming, and also because it is pretty much guaranteed to meet with audience approval. It is a safe way to sound daring.
Unfortunately, the follow-your-passion plea may actually be poor advice, feeding into some destructive tendencies that new graduates should be trying to overcome.
Inexperience. Whose passion is it? The passion of a new high school graduate hopefully will change with age, experience, and maturity. Why would we want to encourage young people to fixate on childhood dreams that are likely to be unrealistic and, by definition, juvenile? Many new graduates have very restricted life experiences, so what career choices can they imagine? Becoming fashion models? Designing video games? Playing in a rock band? Parlaying their enjoyment of student plays into a career in theater or film?
Self-indulgence. The follow-your-passion message is self-centered— just the wrong message to beam to a population that already tends to be too self-indulgent. The follow-your-passion message is that what matters is your own satisfaction, not serving the needs of the community.
Cluelessness. Many young people don’t know what their passion is. Yet they believe they are selling out if they choose paths that aren’t their passion. So they wander through college and post-college unwilling to commit, waiting for the moment when their passion will become clear to them. Some of them wait a long time and never have that epiphany. They spend a lost decade in a twilight state, keeping their options open and rejecting one career path after another because they find some reason to doubt that it is their passion.
Financial irresponsibility. Society doesn’t offer large rewards for self-indulgence. I suspect that the more high-paying jobs are ones for doing work that benefits others, not jobs that cater to narcissistic interests. A healthy society depends on citizens who cooperate, sacrifice and try to help each other out. It depends on professions such as biomedical engineers, clinical nurse specialists, software architects, reservoir engineers, database administrators, information assurance analysts, accountants, occupational therapists, optometrists, and biochemists. We may enjoy the arts but we really don’t need an endless supply of artists, actors and dancers — we appear well-stocked in these specialty areas.
Magical thinking. Let’s not ignore the importance of luck. The graduation speakers encouraging young audiences to find their own path tend to be intelligent, persistent, and lucky. Their less fortunate counterparts rarely get invited to give motivational speeches. I am referring to those whose path ran into a brick wall and who persisted anyway because they didn’t want to waste the time and energy they’d already expended. They found their passion, only to get trapped by it.
Perhaps we should be offering young graduates a different type of advice: Bloom where you are planted. Learn to find ways to grow and thrive even if the conditions aren’t perfect. A friend of mine described how, late in his career, he was given an assignment typically reserved for those about to be pushed into retirement. He was disappointed — he wasn’t ready to retire, and he had hoped for additional promotions and challenges. But then he remembered his mother’s admonition to bloom where you are planted. He abandoned hopes for further advancement and plunged into his new work. Without having to worry about supervisor evaluations, he found that he could make some sweeping and necessary changes. He did an outstanding job and, to his surprise, he was promoted. But then, a few years later, he was again given a dreaded dead-end job. Same cycle of disappointment and acceptance and liberation. He again did an outstanding job. And again, an unexpected promotion.
Job and life satisfaction may depend less on finding one’s passion than on making contributions and being valued members of worthwhile organizations. Too many graduates live in the purgatory of skeptically examining each career path to gauge whether this is their ideal. They might be better off learning to bloom where they are planted.
Still, we don’t want to counsel anyone to stay stuck in a terrible situation, so even the advice to bloom where you are planted needs to be tempered. No one-liner is going to fit all situations. Job/career satisfaction will also depend on our intellectual and emotional strengths. It will depend on how our temperament fits the nature of the work, as well as on our relationships with our bosses and co-workers. Career choices aren’t simple, which is why they shouldn’t be guided by simplistic slogans.