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Follow Your Passion at Your Peril

WhatsYourPassion-RCC-landpage“Follow your passion” might be one of the most perilous pieces of advice ever doled out to our children.  We baby boomers drank that Kool-Aid when we professionalized parenting, wanting our children to be happy in their careers.  Our dreams were justified by college advisers who counseled that children must explicate a singular passion in admissions essays.  So find a passion, and follow that passion, from high school through college major.  And many of our children did just that,  fueled by lessons, tutors, summer camps and so on.

Post college they tried to turn that passion into work and too often it fizzled when faced with reality that the vast majority of college grads work in jobs unrelated to their major.    In 2010, only 62.1 percent of U.S. college graduates had a job that even required a college degree. And just 27.3 percent of college grads had a job that was related to their major at all, according to a recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York study.

Still many grads, undaunted by reality, continue to purse their passion in serial post-college internships, especially those chasing careers in the arts, media, music, and sports.  Last Sunday, a New York Times piece,  “For Interns, All Work and No Payoff,” documented the tales of 20-somethings.  One college grad, trying to break into film production, worked three unpaid  internships in less than a year before landing a $10-an-hour slot on a reality TV show. Not an encouraging scenario as the young man acknowledged:

“No one hires interns,” said Mr. Lang, who sees himself as part of a “revolving class of people” who can’t break free of the intern cycle. “Is this any way to live?”

In reaction to the piece, many of the 300 comments blasted parents for underwriting their children’s pie-in-sky ambitions; other comments lambasted employers who exploit free labor by dangling the possibility of paid work on a hook that always just out of reach.

We are not going to point fingers.  However we have some blunt advice for parents asked to bankroll post-grad unpaid internships: Just Say No! The odds of serial internships eventually paying off in a job are  no better than winning at Lotto.

That’s not to say that internships are a bad idea.  As we wrote in “What Parents Need to Know About Internships,” these positions are essential to gaining a foot in the door, gaining experience and career exploration.  Over the years, we’ve seen many, many students get job offers directly as a result of internships. We’ve also found that seen internships can pay off years later with a second job  for those who kept up the connections they made at those companies. But the key point: internships should be limited to the college or graduate school years when they are part of an education.

Post grad the focus needs to turn to paid work, an argument made persuasively by two experts.  First, the 20-something who doesn’t establish a foothold will pay those years for the rest of her life. Dr. Meg Jay, author of “The Defining Decade,” estimates that as much as two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens during just the first 10 years of a career, making it difficult for late blooming 30-somethings to be able to afford the basics of a comfortable lifestyle.  The other compelling reason to start working, even in a non-glamorous field is that career happiness is often discovered by being good at a job.  In his book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love,” Georgetown professor  Cal Newport argues that few people find work they love from day one.  Becoming good at a job often comes only after frustrating fits and starts over a period of years. As we noted in “Follow Your Passion at Your Peril,”

[Prof. Newport] acknowledges that the “skill-building” phase can take five or even ten years, but eventually the young person becomes valued for their talents, business connections and work history.  Being valued increases self-worth and often a passion for work arises out of that feeling of accomplishment and ability

So does that mean you should encourage your adult children to quash their dreams?  A alternative approach was offered by J Maureen Henderson, a journalist and entrepreneur who we invited to an undergraduate class last semester.  An engaging speaker, Ms. Henderson told students that before embarking on a career they needed to figure out whether they were “work-to-live” or “live-to-work” people.   The former type plans a career in a stable field with fairly certain degree of success.  Ms Henderson admitted that for follow-your-passion, live-to-work person “life is just naturally going to be harder for you.”

The solution, she advised, is constructing

“a sort of Venn diagram between what you like to do and what people will actually pay you to do and then find where the intersection of those two things happens to be.”

That’s exactly what she did.  Post-college she worked in a series of 9-5 jobs that paid the bills.  In her spare time she launched a blog, started freelance writing and built  a consulting business. Her sassy “Generation Meh” blog garnered attention which landed some writing assignments which eventually culminated in a columnist slot at Forbes.  She also now has a number of clients who consult on Gen Y issues with her at her company, Secret Agent Research.

The message for the soon-to-be grads was clear: Find a 9-5 way to pay the bills so you can follow your passion working for yourself on nights and weekends. If you are going to work for free, why not be the boss of yourself!

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