Janelle Quibuyen advises that “whatever you do, don’t quit your dream job to pursue your passion.” This statement is quite contrary to this narrative we Americans like to tell — we talk a lot about pursuing your passions and doing what you love. I have encountered the issue that Quibuyen speaks of in my own classroom. I often struggle with the way we teachers tell students to “do only what you love” and “shoot for the stars” and “dream big,” when we know better than anyone that this narrative is not realistic for all.
In fact, in education, we like to make many promises that we know are not true. The thing is — the kids are onto us. The kids living in poverty, the kids from families who are continually shut out from the “American dream,” who come from broken homes — they know these sayings have little substance to back them up.
We tell our students to pursue the American dream — spouse, house, picket fence, one dog, two kids. We tell them that they should pursue a passion, a career that they will love. We tell them that education can take them anywhere if they just work hard enough.
However, can we really say that this is how the world works?
The American dream sounds great, and we can see people around us living the dream — or at least they seem to be. In actuality, the American dream is a workaholic lifestyle, built upon student debt and sustained by credit cards. The American dream is people all around us living beyond their means to maintain a certain status, to keep their nice neighborhood and picket fence.
We tell our students that education is their ticket out the door to a new world. However, that ticket is becoming increasingly costly and less and less useful. Consider — a few generations ago, one could actually get a decent, well-paying job with just a high school diploma. Yet, we keep moving the requirements up — now a college degree is required for most decent jobs and the diploma is just a stepping-stone. Yet, even then, a degree does not guarantee a career, though it does guarantee an exorbitant amount of debt from student loans.
We also tell them that they should do only what they love and ignore any job that does not spark passion within them. This one is especially hard for me, because I do (mostly) believe in it. Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle” is one of my favorite essays; I have made “you must get your living by loving” my mantra. I really did pursue my passion — hence my career as a teacher. Furthermore, I truly do believe in the concept of Christian vocation — finding that place you have been called to, that you will be passionate about, that will enable you to be Christ’s hands and feet. I believe the world would be a lot better place if passion and calling were our priorities when picking careers, enabling us to build upon our unique interests to produce quality work and creating a happier workforce.
However, “do only what you love” simply is not feasible for many. Many will have to have odd jobs to get through college, if they go to college. Many need to consider the needs of those relying on them before going off to pursue their passion. Many know that reality says you have to eat and all other things are second.
Here is where I think our language needs to shift. Love is important — Lord knows we need more love — but you do not have to love everything about your job to be a happy, fulfilled person. I remember talking to my dad about all the different jobs he and my grandfather had — the consistent theme was that they loved their jobs, not always for the job itself, but because their jobs enabled them to be good dads. That is important to tell our students — you can be in any job and still love the reason you have that job.
We need to shift our dialogue from “do what you love” to “find love in what you do.” Rather than sending our children on this nearly impossible mission to find the perfect job that they will be passionate about, how about we teach them to appreciate the little things. Rather than telling them that money does not matter, why don’t we acknowledge that it does matter, recognize that they will have others depending on them, and help them find balance between being a financial provider and a happy worker.
Yes, we need to encourage our students to be dreamers. And there will be those who are privileged with the support and opportunities to go for their “passion.” I am not saying we should stop pushing our students to dream big. However, when we say these things, we should also be a little transparent. We also have those who are realists — who see our promises as lies and therefore tune us out when we say to shoot for the stars. So perhaps we should start offering them some realistic dreams. No, a high school diploma might not mean much today, but it is a step toward something better if you choose to take it. No, you might not be able to afford that university that everyone is so fanatical about, but a junior college will help you get a little farther down the road. No, you might not have the freedom to go off and pursue your passion, but you can find a job with at least one thing you like about it.
Mostly, we should tell our students that, no matter where they end up, they should find love in what they do. Find a way to be kind to others. Figure out how your job will help you be a better family member, a better friend. Speak up when others are doing wrong and praise the good things that happen. Look around for a way to make things better where you are, here and now. Find love.