Thursday, September 13, 2007

Doing what you love

I love watching blog conversations take their twists and turns and seeing how they interweave together. Aspazia at MMF writes about pursuing a course of study that you love, a post that's a riff off of Dean Dad's riff of Bitch, Ph.D. and Oso's posts about what you're supposed to do (or not) with a Ph.D. And now, here I am riffing again. I have almost always pursued what I love. My father always told me this, so I saw it as my main goal to find what I loved. Unfortunately, I didn't always discover that right off the bat or I went astray into areas because I wanted "a good job." I enjoyed every minute of going astray though. I took all kinds of crazy classes--from Economics to International Studies to Calculus to Photography. I learned something from all of them. If I had simply pursued my English major with narrow-minded focus, I wouldn't have had nearly as much fun nor learned as much. Sure, there are trade-offs to that. When I got to grad school, there were lots of things I hadn't read or done because I didn't take every. single. literature. class. So, I got caught up on my own--much more fun to read Tom Jones for pleasure than for a class sometimes.

I think I finished the Ph.D. this time and not the last time because I loved my topic. I had always loved it, but I didn't realize it until I started working on it. I had chosen my former topic because people told me I was good at it and because I thought it would land me "a good job." Once I realized there were no good jobs really, I just did what I wanted.

I often tell students these stories, explaining how I changed my major 8 times, thinking at one point that I was going to be an international business lawyer (seriously). I tell them this to let them know that they don't have to know right now exactly what they're going to be when they grow up and pursue some particular course right. this. second. in order to achieve that goal. There are always second and third and fourth chances. Most people change careers several times in their lives. There are plenty of opportunities for smart people of any age to retool. I retooled at 34. I may retool again at 50. Who knows.

This year, I did some freshman advising. I hope I don't get nailed for being a bit of an iconoclast in my advice. My first three advisees had their courses all laid out. They didn't know what they were going to major in, so they took a couple of required courses and a couple of exploratory courses. Good for them, I said, and sent them on their way. The next three all had some difficulties. They thought they knew what they wanted to do, not just in college but beyond. They all had parents telling them what to do. Note to self: do not intervene in Geeky Boy and Geeky Girl's choice of classes. One student wanted to take Japanese and not French as her mother had suggested. I asked why she wanted to take Japanese and had she taken French. She said she loved anime and Japanese culture and wanted to learn more about it. She'd never taken French. I asked how far away her parents were and told her to sign up for Japanese.

I think Aspazia's right, undergrad students should explore. Although there are second chances, you never get another chance quite like college to just learn. After college (unless you go to grad school), learning tends to happen on the edges of making a living (unless you make a living doing something where there's lots of opportunity to learn, a path I highly recommend). So here's to doing what you love even if it's not what you're supposed to do.