If you ask a group of children what they want to do when they grow up, the last response you’d expect to hear would be, “Mergers and Acquisitions.” Now, children are hardly the best judges of career options because, if given a choice, half of them would decide to drive ice cream trucks and the dairy industry might become a cartel. But still, when it comes to figuring out what we want to do with our lives, a funny thing happens between childhood and graduation from college: we become a lot more willing to stomach menial labor for the sake of a paycheck.
Make no mistake: I do not intend to write a column full of trite maxims exhorting people to find their passion, follow their dreams and never be afraid to make mistakes along the way to success. That’s exactly the kind of advice I hope this year’s commencement speaker at SMU does not give. When it comes to finding a vocation, I think there’s more to consider than some pithy notion of “following
Indeed, I think the doubts that many of us face when it comes to choosing a career are a newer phenomenon. As millennials graduate from college and enter an anemic job market, they want to find work that is lucrative, rewarding, flexible and fun. If you can find a job these days that satisfies three of those criteria, I would be impressed.
However, what amazes me about people today is just how many of them really do not enjoy their work. From my friends with middling incomes struggling to get by to those with six-figure salaries who spend more time at the office than they do with their own families, I see no lack of people who do work because starving is a marginally worse alternative.
Now, does this mean we should unbound ourselves from our capitalist shackles, quit our jobs and move to Walden Pond a la Thoreau? My younger self might have been tempted, but perhaps that’s not the best way of looking at the situation.
The fact of the matter is that conflating one’s job with one’s purpose in life can have dangerous consequences. Sure, if you’re a medical professional working for Doctors Without Borders, your work might very well be your telos, but if you’re a tax accountant, you do not necessarily have to live and breathe by capital gains regulation to live a fulfilled life.
Wallace Stevens is widely remembered as one of the greatest American poets to have ever lived, yet the man was not a poet by trade. After attending law school, he became an insurance salesman at The Hartford, composing verse in his head on the way to and from work.
Admittedly, composition might have been easier for Stevens since he was a man of wealthy means and never had to worry about keeping a roof over his head. But my point is that neither poetry nor insurance defined Stevens’ existence unto themselves. And I believe the same is true of the rest of us. We are more than our last paycheck. Work can play a key role in determining our happiness, but just as important are our relationships with others. The sooner we realize our interdependent human condition, the better chance we can make our abstract concepts of fulfillment a reality.