Back in my school days, my father offered a great piece of advice as I struggled to figure out how I would “make a living” after graduation: “Find a job you would be willing to do for free and then figure out a way to get paid to do it. You may never be rich, but you likely will be happy.”
This was rather remarkable advice, coming from a man who had struggled through the life-stifling economic mess of the 1930s. Most fathers from that era had a different sort of advice for their children in the prosperous times of the 1950s: “Find a job that pays a lot of money. You may hate the work, but you can pull your boat to the lake on weekends behind your new Cadillac.”
Of course, Dad’s advice was not always easy to follow.
For one thing, when I was a teenager, a great many of the would-be “jobs” I was willing to do for free were illegal, immoral or both. The remaining jobs of interest were positions such as lifeguard at an all-girls summer camp and jockey at the Kentucky Derby — neither a realistic career possibility for a 185-pound boy who couldn’t swim.
And, chasing one’s passions rather than chasing a buck can be a frightening journey. Those of us not born into a wealthy family or cradled in the arms of a trust fund could starve on the way to happiness.
The “starvation possibility” probably is the reason so many parents today still push their children toward career choices based on a Google search of pay ranges rather than based on either the child’s interests or aptitudes. As Michelangelo’s father probably told him: “Drawing pictures and carving statues may be a fun hobby, Mike, but if you don’t want to end up painting church ceilings and living in my basement, you need an MBA from the Kelley School of Business at IU-Bloomington.”
Neither my father’s “passion” advice, nor the “let’s be practical” advice of many other parents, comes without risk. Still, for those with a passion — whether it is ballet or plumbing — giving up “the dream” can be one of life’s greatest tragedies.
The gift of pursuing the dream is not equally distributed in our world. For many youngsters, both in the United States and elsewhere, no choice exists — just as none existed for my father in his teens. The “starvation possibility” is more than a philosophical discussion topic over a burger and supersized fries.
Such is not the case, however, in many American homes as high school students begin looking at post-graduate education possibilities and future careers. Too often, we parents push our children in directions that are more about ourselves than about them.
Sometimes that pushing is toward our own unfulfilled dreams — the job we wish we had pursued had the fates not gotten in the way. Sometimes we kill the dream by trapping our children in family businesses in which they have no interest. Sometimes we cajole them into chasing financial security as the only route to happiness.
The gift of passion is too precious to waste. For most of us, the teen and young adult years are the only time in our lives when we are free enough from life’s demands to take the path less followed toward life’s calling.
We need to support our children when they choose to take that path.
They may reach their dreams, or they may decide eventually on their own to take a different path. That’s life.
But, in the words of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”