'Do what you love' [Commentary]

Common advice to grads may be poor message

June 02, 2014|Susan Reimer

My husband the sportswriter isn't a commencement speaker, but he should be. He has lots of advice that he is willing to share with complete strangers, and he doesn't charge anything for it.

Recently, a friend shared the happy news that his son had graduated law school and hoped to become a sports agent because he loved sports.

"Tell him this," my husband responded. "Go into the kind of law where you can make a lot of money, and then buy season tickets."

Turn your avocation into your vocation, he was saying, and it might not be fun anymore because it will be a job.

It is graduation season and plenty of commencement speakers are telling the grads to do what they love. To follow their passion. Forty years is a long time to work and a long time to do something you hate.

I know, because I've said that to graduates.

But Gordon Marino, a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf's College, writing in the New York Times, suggested that this might be bad advice. Or at least selfish and elitist advice.

He was writing about the difference between work, talent and duty, and he talked about how his father labored at a job he hated so that he could provide for his family and send his kids to college.

He talked about the counseling he does for disadvantaged kids who work long hours at hard or hateful jobs just to help their families out. He doesn't advise them to follow their passion and do what they love. He asks them what they are particularly good at and how that skill can be leveraged to improve their prospects.

Passion and meaning, he said, don't enter into the conversation, except in the sense that those things can sharpen your focus and make you more successful.

Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit, in an interview a couple of years ago, was asked what advice he gives and he, too, said he tells young people to do "whatever makes your heart beat the fastest." Because, he said, that will give you the energy to work hard and succeed.

But Shane Lopez, who polled workers for Gallup to find out what makes people love their jobs, reported that these jobs are not found, they are made. He described, also in an essay for the Times, how workers made what little changes they could in tasks and relationships to make their jobs more satisfying.

He called it "job crafting," and he described how workers go "boss shopping" by moving around in their own company until they landed with a boss that supported or inspired them.

Professor Marino also talked about men like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King who did what they felt they had to do with no thought of joy or self-fulfillment or bucket lists. They had passion for their work, no doubt, but their "jobs" cost them, in the case of Mr. Mandela, years of his life in prison and, in the case of Dr. King, his life.

Forty years is indeed a long time to toil at a job you despise — or even a job that does not make your heart best faster. But it is the lucky kid who lands a job he loves right out of high school or college. We do them a disservice to suggest that this is something actually in their control.

But meaningful work is out there and finding it is a worthy goal. We can offer them hope that they will succeed.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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