I 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.