When I went back to school after having Niamh, I chose a to get a degree in engineering. I did not go to school for art or writing, which were the other two things I felt drawn to. I loved and was very good at science and math, but I wanted to spend my life creating artwork, writing, and being my own boss. I chose not to roll the dice. It was a bad bet. I lasted a year and a half in a grey cubicle at a nuclear power plant feeling only half alive. I’d eat lunch with my co-workers, who obviously loved their job, and wonder why I couldn’t catch the spark that lit them up. Every day, I walked the long way back to my car, I would think if I retire from here, I will have settled for a career that I did not love. Can I give 20 years to something I don’t love?
Some people can. And it isn’t the job— any job can be very meaningful for one person and incredibly soul-crushing for another. I’m not in any way critiquing careers. It is the individual. So many people are too tightly wound in the web of pre-packaged and promised dreams, that they “…lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” They cannot disentangle their true passions and what-ifs from the story they find themselves in. Thirty-year mortgage. 401K. Two vehicles. Disposable income. Vacations. It is a giant leap to the place where a person puts it all on the line for what they always think about becoming or doing.
What I believe we are really betting on though, is that cultural expectations, possessions, and comforts might just be more valuable than living a life defined by passion, love, adventure, risk, and deep personal fulfillment. Our true “calling” is too risky, so we fold and keep our pile of chips. We are locked into advancing our careers to pay for our way of life which causes us to have to further advance our careers to pay for our way of life…all the way up the ladder. But maybe all we are really doing is spinning our wheels in a cycle we are too afraid to ditch.
That’s why I love stories of struggle, of the unsexy grind of creating a beautiful, passion-filled life from the trappings of the American Dream. I LOVE to listen to stories of someone who changes careers at forty or leaves their high-paying job to be a squash player or says “no thanks” to business-as-usual in the music industry and walks across America. These are the people that give us hope. The ones that show us a life fully lived is far more valuable than keeping our chips neatly stacked in front of our faces, so we cannot see what is truly on the line.
And this is why, when I tell people that my daughter wants to live in a van and be a traveling environmentalist and my son wants to be a comedian, I take SO MUCH FREAKING JOY from saying it.
We’ve made happiness, personal fulfillment, mindfulness, and creativity as much a part of what our children learn and value as math, english, science, etc. We do not want to raise smart children who do not know how to bet on themselves and their own passionate future. Creative, freelance, entrepreneurial jobs are becoming more and more accessible. We can create our own careers. A ton of hard work and failure are involved, but that’s part of the beauty in it. I tell Niamh and Philly all the time something I heard and will forever remember from Rob Bell— If you are going to go down doing the thing you love, go down in flames. Light up the whole sky, kiddo. Giving permission to fail— and fail big— relieves the pressure and makes failure part of it from the beginning.
I’ve had the conversation with a few different teens this year who want to pursue art in college but who are being dissuaded or even told a flat-out “no” by their parents, in favor of the historically lucrative degrees in medicine and science. One sixth grader told me her parents were already refusing to pay for her college if she went for an art degree.
I told each of the kids the same thing:
You need to be respectful to your parents.
And you also need to go live your life.
You have only ONE.
Don’t waste it doing what someone else wants you to love.
I think it is so, so important for a child to be given permission to chart their own path to success— to be afforded the space and freedom to figure out what they love.
Looking back, I know I chose engineering for all the wrong reasons. I chose it for safety. To make sure I looked and sounded smart. To impress. To prove something. If I could do it all again, I’d choose to pursue a degree in art or writing with a minor in marketing. I think marketing, or even a degree in business, will help artists far more than they can imagine. There is always someone in the world who will buy your art. It is important to learn how to market yourself to reach them and run a business successfully. Tell your artist-child this. Give them tools to succeed and, especially, the space to create their own way to happiness.
I don’t count my degree a loss. I love science and math, still. And missteps and figuring myself out— that’s all part of my story. I’m a smart girl; but I no longer feel the need to prove it. I’d much rather spend my energy creating a life I absolutely love. And I think it is rubbing off on our kids. We are going to be incredibly proud of them, whatever they choose to chase. And if I get to laugh at comedy clubs with my son and visit my daughter in the middle of a desert in her hippie van— I’ll be so thankful they found their truest work in the world. I’m so thankful they dare to dream—and feel so privileged to cheer them on.
What are your children doing or planning to do career-wise? How do you serve their dreams and cheer them on?