Thursday, July 18, 2013

“Follow your passion”? Not so fast…

When I was in college, there was no such thing as “follow your passion.” There wasn’t a ton of focus on careers to begin with, and the assumption at my school – a Catholic liberal arts college for women – was that most graduates would become teachers, social workers, or librarians, and a smattering – a growing smattering for my era – would go to law or med school, get their PhDs in something or other, or do something or other that was interesting and useful.

I was not, to say the least, particularly career focused.

I half-heartedly started out in a PhD program in political science, mostly – in retrospect – because I wanted to live in New York City. But I only lasted a year, after which I spent a few years waitressing so I could travel cross-country and throughout Europe. After which I spent a few years getting my career legs. Which led to a reasonably interesting, challenging, and well-paid career in technology marketing. For the most part, I have enjoyed my work (and even the crazily dysfunctional organizations where I worked when I was full time in “corporate”). Most important, while at work I made some tremendous “life friends.”

But did I “follow my passion”?

Well, not exactly.

If I’d followed my passion, I’d have been a writer. Maureen Dowd in my fantasy, but more likely Moe Schmoe in reality.

But over time I have observed that there has been an increasing focus on finding work you’re passionate about. (Whatever that means.) I think all this passion-talk was a well-meaning attempt by some romantic baby-boomer parents to encourage their kids not to sell out and go for the bucks. But to do what a lot of baby-boomer parents had romantically assumed, while they were in college, that they were going to do. That is, until they faced the cold cruel reality that they were going to have to make a living.

In terms of the people I know, I can count on one hand the number who I believe would say that they’re following their passion, career-wise.

Anyway, there was an interesting article on the other day on how colleges (and parents) are back-pedaling on the “follow your passion” thang and front-pedaling on a more practical approach.

One women whose three daughters had all gone to Scripps (a liberal arts school) spoke in the article about the evolution of her family’s thinking.

When Kitty Wo’s eldest daughter started at Scripps College in California in 2002, ‘‘we thought a liberal arts education would be a wonderful thing,’’ she said. ‘‘There was no pressure.’’

Her two younger daughters graduated from Scripps in 2008 and 2012, and ‘‘with each successive child, we've thought more about their career path and what field of study would be best,’’ said Wo, who lives in Honolulu. ‘‘Each girl’s experience led the next one to being a lot more proactive,’’ with internships and other job-related experiences.

Wo’s middle daughter, an economics major, even worried that her younger sister’s media studies major wasn’t practical. ‘‘Her sister was thinking, ‘‘Oh my God, you’re watching movies?'’’ Wo recalled with a laugh.

The Wo family experience  underscores the shift in emphasis that’s going on at all but the top-tier-iest of colleges, where you can still embark on a voyage of discovery with the full confidence that someone in your Harvard-Princeton-Stanford network will hire you for something when you graduate. Not to mention that a handful of top tier schools are well-heeled enough to make sure that their students don’t graduate $200K in debt.

For the more pedestrian academies:

Instead of ‘‘Follow your passion,’’ the mantra has become more like, ‘‘We'll help you get a job.’’

Schools – responding to parental demand - are revving up the career services, internship programs, and alumni networking to help make sure that their graduates boomerang back on them with no prospects and a job as a barista.

The schools that are really profiting by the shift toward a more pragmatic focus on career include Boston’s own Northeastern, which has always had a co-op program. That co-op program has helped turn Northeastern from a largely commuter school for kids studying engineering and P.T. to a destination school, with applications up 40 percent over the last few years. (I’m sure it also helps that Northeastern’s campus has been transformed from a few utilitarian buildings on Huntington Ave. to a very extensive and quite fine urban campus.)

Spokeswoman Renata Nyul says Northeastern’s co-op program is a ‘‘huge reason’’ for its popularity. ‘‘Our mission is to provide a real-world experience and an education that’s rooted in the integration of rigorous classroom learning and real-world professional experience,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s been the ethos of this place for a long time, but lately is seems to really resonate.’’

Co-ops can also pave the way for permanent employment, Nyul says: ‘‘Ninety percent of our graduates are employed full-time and 87 percent are doing something related to what they majored in.’’

Other schools may not be jumping fully in on Northeastern’s co-op model, but they’re definitely getting more focused on where the jobs are. And they’re not waiting until senior year to get the kids thinking about work. They’re making career talk part of orientation.

Not all parents feel this way – some are still holding out for liberal arts vs. voke-tech – but parent Andrew Speno pretty much summed up the current thinking.

‘‘Education for education’s sake is a luxury that middle-class families like us don’t have any more.’’

Yet it’s kind of sad to think about jettisoning the entire liberal arts experience in favor of turning everyone into an accounting major.

Nice to have a balance between the strictly practical and the love of learning stuff.

The world needs poets, too.

But if your parents are going to be forking out a couple of hundred thousand for your education – or (gulp) you're going to be borrowing that kind of money to get one – you really do have to be thinking about just how you’re going to be making a living. Especially in the world we’re in now.

It was sure a lot easier back in the day when it was pretty much guaranteed that everyone with an education - other than the most egregious of f-ups or couldn’t care less types - would find their way into a reasonably decent job.


Frederick Wright said...

"Follow your passion", the great and seductive lie. How nice it would be, how cozy and safe, if those of us born into the lowest rung of society's ladder had the luxury of swanning our way through fascinating lectures on philosophy, art history, and media studies.

Kathleen Rogers said...

I think this "Folow your passion" crap has led to an overproduction of craft beer, artisanal bread, and the weird things you find on Etsy:)