Find Your Passion

Pamela LongI was thrilled by this year’s MacArthur grant list.  So many fascinating people doing so much meaningful work.

Poets. Musicians. Scientists. Lawyers. An artist using Houston’s Third Ward and the people who live there as his canvas. Alison Bechdel!

I was particularly impressed by Pamela O. Long, an independent historian of science and technology. Partly that’s because she’s 71 and still working; it always makes me happy when people recognize that folks don’t turn into pumpkins at some pre-determined age.

But it’s also because she’s an independent scholar – someone who has cobbled together a serious career in historical research out of grants, fellowships, and the occasional visiting professor or adjunct job.

That is, she’s spent her life doing the work that she wanted to do. She had a passion.

That probably could be said of most of the grant recipients, and not just the artists, scholars, and scientists.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of finding your passion – or passions. It’s not a popular subject these days, when all the focus seems to be on the importance of education to future financial security and the need for people to focus their lives on jobs.

Right now in Texas, the schools are asking 13- and 14-year-olds to decide what they want to be when they grow up so that they can be tracked into the right program in high school. Am I the only person who thinks that is nuts?

First of all, most kids that age haven’t had enough exposure to all the possibilities in the world to have any idea of what they might want to do. The few who are single-minded and have amazing talent – ballet dancers, tennis players, math geniuses – don’t need the advice.

Also, ten years from now when those kids are looking for jobs there are going to be a lot of very new kinds of work out there. And these kids are unlikely to keep doing the same work for their entire lives.

What they need from school is education for versatility. Educating yourself for a specific career path in high school could very easily limit your ability to switch gears entirely at 30.

That’s not to say kids shouldn’t be thinking about their future at that age. But I think the right question to ask kids is not, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but “What are your passions?”

And not just what do you love – which at that age might be basketball or boy bands – but why do you love it? What is it that gets you excited, that you would do for fun even if it was hard work, that makes you want to get up in the morning or stay up until three a.m.?

Passions aren’t set in concrete. And some of us – maybe most of us – have more than one. But those are the things that give your life meaning, that give you purpose.

A passion can be a career, of course. Many of the writers here on Book View Café have spent their lives driven to make up stories and have made a living at it. Others – like many of the MacArthur recipients, including Dr. Long – have developed grant writing skills so they can do the work they want to do.

But a passion can be something you pursue on the side from your job. I meet a lot of people like that in Aikido – people whose passion is to train in Aikido. Most teach after they’ve been training long enough, but only a few try to make their living from Aikido.

It is received wisdom that no one ever says on their death bed that they wished they’d spent more time at the office. But I’m damn sure a lot of Aikido folks would say they wished they’d spent more time on the mat. And poets might say they wish they’re written more poems.

Everyone needs enough money to live on. And yes, we’ve got a lot of people without good job prospects right now. But jobs aren’t the only things people need in this world, even those who are looking for work or living hand-to-mouth.

They need purpose. They need passions. They need a reason to get up in the morning. This isn’t something restricted to those with money and leisure – everyone needs it.

So all you kids out there – and, for that matter, all you people who aren’t kids anymore, too – start by figuring out what’s important to you. Then you can think about how to build it into a career. Or how to do it while still making a living.

Don’t let other people take the joy out of your life.




Find Your Passion — 11 Comments

  1. This used to be (may still be, I don’t know anyone with kids in the UK system) what they did in England. My French teacher in grade school went to university, but her younger brother had a bad case of mono and missed the examinations kids took at around the age the English system decided whether you went vocational or university.

    They never gave him the test, and slotted him into vocational track.

    He ended up being an international businessman who spoke multiple languages, but it was all him (and his family, I’d guess) and little from the school system, because he could not get back into classes that prepared him for university.

    I understand wanting to get kids skills, but what they need, according to someone I heard speak, is some specific tricks and tools they will need in anything. You can’t work a factory job without understanding computer basics. You need Excel for almost anything. You need to be able to write coherently, to trace logic, to read three articles and pull the main ideas out of them.

    You need to be able to read as well as you can, and think for yourself.

    I am not convinced we are preparing them for what may be a massive job shift in the next few years. I know I see listings for things all the time and have no clue what they are–but I at least have the basics to apply for them. Some of these kids don’t have those basics.

    They need to know what their passion is. (I wish someone had taught me to write grants years ago. I need to try a few more of them.)

    • Grant writing is an important skill for the indie scholar, artist, etc. Also for those working in nonprofits of various kinds. Several of the MacArthur grant recipients appeared to be very good at it.

      I agree with you that people need to learn basic skills that can be adapted to anything. That’s what worries me the most about tracking kids into vocational training in particular.

  2. I think the -type- of person you are may well be fixed at an early age. But how you apply your talents and interests may — and ought to — change. Does the school board in Texas actually not have children? Because you can see this any day, with kids.
    My son was a Star Wars fanatic for years. He was a moderator on the SW wiki. He has ALL the books, still. We have mountains of ‘collectibles’ which some day I have to put on Ebay. He had the level of nutty focus that was actually reminiscent of YENTL — you know, with Barbara Streisand debating with Mandy Patinkin whether groundhogs are treyf. The kid would have made a great Hasidic Jew!
    He went to college, joined the Army, and suddenly he flipped. New obsession! He can now look at a fighter jet in the Air and Space Museum and point out where the bomb racks have been slightly altered. He can tell you who is running for office on the Marianas Islands and why he won’t win. He can adjust his beret and his medals to the millimeter, to where even his mom’s dressmaker eye cannot see it.
    Ten years later, and he is the same person. He’s just doing different things. If, ten years ago, he had been shunted onto the track for a PhD in Jedi Studies, we would be doomed.
    And let us not talk about my daughter, whose gentle plans for world domination are only slightly altered.

    • That’s what I mean about figuring out what it is about your passion that drives you. Your son’s interest in knowing things in depth would be useful in all kinds of fields. It easily translates to a career, though when he was a kid it looked like merely a hobby.

  3. Speaking as one who knows: grant writing has nothing to do with receiving a McArthur. McArthur awards come from dedicated lobbying of a distinguished and passionate group who make the recs to the board. Often they’ve worked years on behalf of someone they believe deserving before the grant is awarded. The lobbyists are composed of a secreted invited list of people who are to make recommendations to the McArthur board. It’s supposed to be awarded to persons whose work will be facilitated by, for a change, not having to worry where next month’s rent is coming from, while still struggling to keep one’s work and career going.

    Often, of course, these days anyway, as with Alex Ross, it goes to someone who doesn’t need it.’

    The point is that the awardee has, against all sorts of odds, continued to create a significant body of valuable work, and the award should allow this to continue, without the stress that comes without any benefits, including a pension, health insurance, and regular paycheck. And even grant-writing is an excruciating experience (again, speaking from enormous personal experience) — taking enormous amount of time away from the work. The competition is ever greater as NEA and NHAendowments are cut and the numbers of applicants grow as there are fewer and fewer slots at universities and so on. While so many grants, particularly for scholarship, are limited to those with Ph.D.s and a place on a recognized faculty.

    As you can see, with Alec Ross, none of those applied (nor is he the only recipient who didn’t have those qualifying lacks). It did cause a (very enclosed, private) stink. More and more these awards have been going to the Ross sorts.

    This year it seems to have come again more closely aligned with the mission as originally mandated by the McArthur Foundation.

    Love, C.

    • I found this year’s group particularly inspiring. And I didn’t mean to apply that grant writing had anything to do with it; I know how the MacArthur grants work. That was intended to explain how Pamela Long managed to support herself as an independent scholar. I suspect she’s exactly the kind of person the award should benefit: someone who has worked hard at something and struggled to bring in enough money to support her work. Figuring out how to apply for grants is one way to support work you love that doesn’t pay for itself.

  4. I was listening the other day to a conversation going on with William Deresiewicz, the fellow who wrote Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Among the points he was making is that only four professions receive 90+ percent of Ivy League grads: finance, law, medicine and technology. And by far the largest percent of those four go to finance.

    It was quite different before higher education was about being practical and a qualifier for making a living.

    Love, C.

  5. This is precisely how we raised our kids! We also taught them that what we do for a living and what we do with our life is not necessarily the same thing.

    Funny, right now one of them is often ridiculed by friends (well, mostly the parents of those friends) for choosing a course of study that they view as impractical and not likely to lead to any sort of future employment; while at the same time those same friends are envious because they themselves didn’t have the courage to follow their own passion.

    It’s frustrating to feel you’re constantly justifying your choices to everyone and their mother; on the other hand, it’s kind of amusing to watch people squirm when faced with the blandness of their own choices in comparison…

    • My nephew majored in Classics in college. He developed a passion for Latin in high school and stayed with it. I don’t think anyone thought that was practical.

      A couple of years ago, he got accepted for a program at U Mass in Amherst that gave him a full scholarship for a master’s program in teaching Latin. Now he’s got a job as a Latin teacher. He likes to teach, so he’s able to enjoy his work and follow his passion. And he didn’t pay huge bucks for an MBA or other “practical” degree.

      (As you can probably tell, I’m exceedingly proud of my nephew.)

  6. There are two *mathematicians* in the list. Pure mathematicians.
    One of them has result so exotic even most of his colleagues can’t understand them.

    I love Alison Bechdel, and I remember reading in her “indelible” autobiography that she spends her whole life doing what she most loved as a kid.
    As a (very much non-genius) mathematician, so do I.

    • I’ve always thought that was the definition of a pure mathematician: doing work that even your colleagues can’t understand ;-). I had a friend like that years ago. He was brilliant, but he couldn’t teach calculus because he couldn’t get back down to the basic level. Some people are meant to just research those very strange things, and I’m glad the MacArthur people get around to recognizing a few of them.