Saturday, June 11, 2011

advice to graduates: fitting a job into a life's work

I attended La Grande High School's commencement ceremony yesterday. In his remarks to the graduates, the superintendent made a comment that seemed innocuous enough but which roiled around in my brain and caused me to scribble on the back of my program much of what follows. He said that people should look for a job that they will like because it is important to love your work. On the surface, it's a harmless enough suggestion. I do think that there are such things as dream jobs, yet I find it to be a rather naive if not disingenuous proposition - namely that everyone has a dream job awaiting them out there if they can only find it. Young people probably know in their bones that this is untrue, and that what is going on is a kind of ritual fiction being palmed off from one generation to the next. I think we owe them a somewhat more hardheaded and honest appraisal of what awaits them after graduation. Here's what I think.

It is impossible for everyone of you to find a job you will love, but a few of you will. You lucky ones will experience how a job can become a vocation and, over time, a career and a life's work. But the rest of you will more likely lead a kind of divided life wherein you work at a job and while you nurture a vocation outside that job. A calling to some lifelong endeavor or purpose is an integral part to a person's sense of well being, but it is likely not to be found in the workplace. And so most of you are about to commence a pursuit of at least two distinct goals: one of working to support your life and another of surviving that work in order to live as fully as possible.

To admit this is the case is, I think, the only honest way to confront the constraining realities life will impose on each of you as you chart a course forward. What awaits you is work. Your labor, your talent, your ideas, your energy, your time will be traded for wages. The terms may or may not always be to your liking, and the work itself may be tedious or seem pointless or distasteful. You almost certainly will cast around for other work, better work if you are lucky. Changing jobs will become a kind of education in itself as you canvas the geography of the workplace and see how other people become lodged in certain jobs. You will compare their lot with your own; in every job you hold, you will try to imagine what it would mean to go to work for year after year after year. These thought experiments will very likely alarm you.

In my opinion, you should not be afraid of work. I believe there is dignity in all honest work. You earn self respect from doing work well, and you acquire a hard won sense of the value of things by getting a paycheck. But you should never confuse a job with your purpose in life. Trade your honest labor in good faith, but spend your spirit on what you love. You are not a tool; you have aspirations, and what you love defines you far better than what you earn.

For many of you the margins of time outside of work - lunch time, the weekends, the evenings, holidays - will become sacred to you. Do not fritter these times away, for it is outside the boundaries of the workplace where you will most likely discover your life's work, your true career, and as long as you are committed to this project, you will find that your job, whatever it is, will serve and support your life but not define it utterly. By contrast your career, may not pay the bills and it may not be a full time gig, but it will sustain you in ways your job cannot. In time it may even embolden or enable you to transform your job into something more than it was.

There is no guarantee that you will land your dream job, far from it. If you do not, you will be like most of the rest of us here today. But something unique and deeply satisfying awaits each of you if you have the wherewithal to pursue it. That something is your career. Don't let a job obscure the importance of that pursuit.
K

3 Comments:

Anonymous cjones said...

Perfectly and astutely said.

7:57 PM  
Blogger John said...

Thanks for this. It's never too late to hear good advice.

1:06 PM  
Blogger jessp said...

Well put, boss.

10:38 PM  

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