In the coming month, millions of graduates will be marching down the aisles of academe to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance. My son will be one of them when he receives his Bachelor of Music diploma from the University of Texas.
Many wellwishers tell him he’s lucky. He doesn’t have a job waiting, exactly. But he’ll be able to pay the rent as a working musician by adding to his studio of private students and cobbling together a variety of paying gigs. And, above all, he’ll be doing what he loves because he’s “found his passion.”
Despite its legions of proponents, the concept of “finding your passion” is highly overrated. In fact, I think it actually prevents many young adults from settling on a career path and, ultimately, deriving satisfaction from work. The quest for a passion has led many of the perfectionists I see to search endlessly for the “right” job or graduate program, never actually committing to a course of action.
Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer science professor, agrees. His newest book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, sums up his philosophy in the subtitle: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. He debunks what he calls The Passion Hypothesis (“The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”) and proposes that passion develops from working hard and mastering a skill. In other words, fulfillment from a job doesn’t just happen. It can come from almost anything you commit yourself to doing well if you devote your time to becoming an expert at it.
This should be good news for the high-strung millenials whose resumes are packed with evidence of their ambition. Double majors. Summer internships. Community service. These twentysomethings are no strangers to hard work. They’re used to putting in the hours, whether for extracurricular activities or heavy courseloads, to reach a goal. If they practice what Newport preaches, working hard at whatever job they choose may bring them satisfaction—and, yes, in time, even passion. But they need to set aside another millenial characteristic—the need for instant gratification— and remember the value of practice in developing a skill.
Newport proposes replacing the potentially limiting search for a passion with what he calls The Craftsman Mindset: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” You can avoid a lot of frustration by focusing on improving your performance at work instead of fretting about what the job is doing for you.
Musicians exemplify the craftsman mentality. Consider the process my son went through to develop into a professional trumpet player. When he took his first lesson at nine, he could barely blow a note. For months his playing sounded like a herd of wounded pachyderms on their way to the elephant graveyard. He didn’t show any evidence of natural talent, or of passion, for that matter. But he was curious and, even as a preteen, exceptionally dedicated. He stuck with it, studied with a succession of increasingly accomplished teachers, endured lip-numbing drills to improve his technique, and in time (after years of playing) began to see results. His commitment to his craft grew along with his proficiency.
Unlike most college graduates entering the workforce, my son already has thousands of hours of experience under his belt. So, yes, it’s fair to say he’s pursuing his passion, having earned it after twelve years of focused dedication to his craft. But even so, as with any job, his work still requires him to endure more than a little tedium as a means to doing what he loves. He’s had to perform in the pit for about five Italian operas too many, in his opinion; play the annoying, same three notes over and over as sideman for a cowboy funk band in a smoky bar where the musicians don’t even get a free beer; and give lessons to indifferent middle school students whose trumpet stylings call to mind his own early struggles.
He’ll also be sweating in the sweltering Austin heat on graduation night, wearing a tuxedo under his black gown as he performs with the UT Wind Ensemble. Along with the standard, boring graduation march, they’ll be playing The Eyes of Texas while a backdrop of fireworks lights up the Tower. (Everything really is bigger in Texas.)
But I don’t think he’ll mind this last performance of his college career even though it will be unbearably hot and musically uninspiring. After all, it’s a paying gig.
I generally steer clear of political discussions. They don’t interest me very much, and, as a psychologist practicing in DC where I see people from both sides of the aisle, I don’t want to risk alienating anyone. But a story that ran in the Post a few days ago just begs for comment.
An American University anthropology professor, Adrienne Pine, brought her sick baby to class. While she gave her lecture, the child crawled around on the floor, putting a paper clip in her mouth and exploring the electrical outlets. After a while, she began to fuss. So Pine picked her baby up and, in full view of forty students, nursed her and kept on lecturing without, apparently, missing a beat.
More than capable of finding their own distractions apart from the ones provided by Professor Pine, the students went on Twitter to relay the story.
Sidestepping the issue, the university administration chastised the professor for putting the students’ health at risk by bringing a sick child to class. They also chided her for her vitriolic response to a student journalist (whom she accused of an “anti-woman” tone) who interviewed her in an attempt to write about the incident for the school newspaper. (The professor subsequently issued an apology to the reporter.)
Another breastfeeding flap that made the news recently occurred when a restaurant owner discretely approached a patron who was nursing her baby, breasts fully exposed, and offered to provide a privacy screen for the table. Other diners, it seems, were uncomfortable. The “lactivist” mother was incensed and took her outrage to the media.
I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of the working mother. I’ve been there myself. During my oldest child’s first two years, we went through a succession of bad baby sitters before we found the lovely, devoted woman who ended up caring for my children for a decade and always remembered their birthdays every year with a card even after we moved to Maryland. But before she came into our lives, we had our share of childcare crises.
Once I had to dash home, retrieve my baby, and order the locks changed when the sitter quit abruptly in the middle of a workday. I had told her I didn’t want her taking my daughter out on a 20˚ below zero Chicago winter afternoon. She was angry at me for ruining her plans to tote my child along for a lunch she had arranged with her boyfriend to celebrate his winning an assault case. (No, he wasn’t a lawyer.)
Another time, with a different sitter, I discovered my infant had been left to the care of my sitter’s relatives in the waiting room of the hospital maternity ward where the sitter’s daughter was giving birth.
And yet a third babysitter called me to come home from work after she had lost her temper and shaken my eighteen-month-old, hard, for not picking up her toys. I was relieved she’d had the sense to be frightened by her loss of control and resign her post. But she left me in the lurch nevertheless.
I’m also not opposed to breastfeeding. I nursed my three kids cumulatively for about seven years. How old were they when they gave up the breast? Well, let’s just say one of them weaned herself by telling me, “Mommy, it doesn’t taste good anymore.” (Granted, she was an exceptionally verbal toddler).
So please don’t tell me I’m anti-woman or anti-breastfeeding. Or, as another AU professor suggested, that the lecture hall lactation display upset students because they prefer to view faculty as “walking brains” without lives and bodies.
I just don’t buy that explanation. I’m a faculty member, and I have bodily needs. But I would never decide to silence a rumbling stomach in the middle of a class by eating a sandwich. That would be rude. Or if I were, say, diabetic and needed my insulin, I’d most certainly excuse myself to inject myself in private no matter how precarious my blood sugar level was. There are professional and personal boundaries to maintain.
As for the charge of sexism, I doubt it would go unnoticed if a male professor were suddenly to strip off his shirt and continue teaching bare-chested because he felt too hot.
Since when do we have the right to do whatever we please, wherever, for our own convenience, without regard for the effect our conduct has on others?
The professor’s and diner’s In-your-face attitude about breastfeeding has much more to do with their outsized sense of entitlement than with gender politics.
Recently I’ve been hearing from many frantic parents of college students. The semester is coming to an end, and they’re worried. How will everyone adjust to being together again after a year of living apart? And they’re not the only ones looking ahead with trepidation to the long break. The students have their own worries.
So I’ve been mulling over the issues quite a bit, especially as I’m also anticipating the return of my own college student, who will be taking up residence in his old room for a few weeks—the longest stretch in a year—before he heads off again.
With approximately eleven summers as the parent of three college students under my belt, along with the semester breaks I’ve weathered with students in my practice, I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t, to keep harmony. Here are my suggestions for parents.
1) Don’t expect things to be the same. Your child is a young adult now, and it’s normal for your relationship to change.
2) Talk to your college student at the beginning of the summer. You need to discuss your expectations about curfews, household responsibilities, use of the car, and checking in with you about comings and goings.
3) Lighten up on the rules. Within reason, your young adult should be in control of his own schedule and how he spends his time.
4) It’s not unreasonable to expect your son or daughter to get a job. But understand that finding paid summer work isn’t easy. Volunteering or taking classes to get some distribution requirements out of the way are other options.
5) If your student comes home with a new political perspective, unfamiliar dietary regimen, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs that differ from yours, have a conversation and try to understand her position rather than becoming angry and shutting down communication.
I asked my own kids—current and former college students themselves—what they’d like parents to know. They said, “Give us space! We’re used to having freedom and no supervision, so you shouldn’t treat us like we’re still in high school.” They also pointed out, “You feel like a totally different person when you come back from school, and you don’t want to go back to being your old self.”
It’s not one-sided, though. They acknowledged that college students should compromise when they’re at home. “We realize we’re not at school and different rules apply.”
Well put. I’m looking forward to having my son under my roof again for a little while. I’ve put fresh sheets on his bed and stocked up on his favorite foods.
I don’t expect any conflicts as long as he follows one longstanding, but oft-ignored, rule. He has to empty his suitcases and not leave them sitting in the middle of his room for the entire time he’s here. I know he doesn’t live at home anymore. But I’d rather not have the luggage out to remind me that he’s just passing through on his way somewhere else.
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