Monday, April 6, 2009

The One About Growing Up

I see college students everyday. Big ones, little ones, short ones, tall ones, smart ones, ... uh, really smart ones. From my position of security inside my own personal career bubble, I am sure that I am a bit more smug than I would be if I were still trying to find my way in the world. Putting my own smugosity aside, I would like to offer a reflection for parents around the world. This post goes out to both parents and adult children. It is for anyone who believed that one day they would be allowed to find meaning for themselves, only to discover that their search for meaning in the world was but a continuation of their parents' journey. It is also for parents who struggle with how much to say or do when it becomes obvious that your child has chosen a path that you absolutely, positively know to be crazy.

I'll take, "Things That Alienate Your Kids" for $500, please.

Since my sons did not agree to be a part of this blog, I will keep identifying information to a minimum, but I should tell you that part of the developmental process that my wife and I have experienced as parents has always been a bit sketchy around the principle of "letting them go." They have chosen colleges that we would not have chosen. They have chosen college majors that we would not have chosen. They have also chosen an array of experiences that we would not have chosen. While our voice has been ever present as they have made these choices, in the end it was they who chose college, major, and other experiences.

An example of this is one son's recent decision about whether or not to change his major or add a second major. My advice had been to change to the second, more flexible major and not think about a double major because it was too time-consuming. After consulting with his advisor and a faculty person, he decided to keep his original major and add a minor in the other area. His general reasoning was "Because it seemed like what I wanted to do." Although it took me a few hours to reorient myself to his decision, I realized that this event signaled two things. First, he was thinking enough about the present and looking enough at the future to engage in a discussion with several people about what he is studying while in college. The second thing is that his final decision was based on information from several sources and it was executed in a manner than seemed to integrate their wisdom, but remained HIS decision.

It is hard enough to make rational, thoughtful decisions about any aspect of our lives without our parents second-guessing us, but decision-making about career becomes more complex and painful still. I am sure that my chemical engineer father felt more than a bit dismayed that his two sons studied music and psychology and at one point, we were both college professors in our chosen fields. Don't get me wrong, I think he was proud of us, but I think we hit our fifties before he gave up hope that we would come to our senses and retrain as chemists. The occasionally difficult interrogatories during my twenties and thirties were designed so that he could learn what I was doing AND to allow him a bit of a pulpit to subliminally funnel information to me about alternative career choices.

Although gold dust is precious, when it gets in your eyes it obstructs your vision.

According to those who know such things, Hsi-Tang Chih Tsang said this sometime in the eighth century. It's one of those sayings that transcend time, but seems related to a Warren Buffet quote, "Price is what you pay. Value is what you get," and (if I do this right) a Jimmy Buffet lyric, "We are the people our parents warned us about." I realize that in talking about values (ideals) I am not talking about value (worth), but based on my interactions with folks over the past few years, somebody has not gotten the memo. While this is based on my experience with undergraduate and graduate students, I think the issue extends well beyond that population to older workers, non-college educated careerists, and those yet to enter college.

One of the most difficult parts of my job is sitting with a student who is doing poorly in his/her major and is ashamed to tell anyone. For them the solution is to change majors and the conversation goes something like this.

I was thinking 'bout changing my major.

What were you considering?

Uh. I dunno. What do you think would be a good major for me.
(Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am asked at least a hundred times each year by students I have never, ever seen before, what major I think would be a good one for them.)

Well, I'm not sure I can actually answer that. What do you want to do after you graduate?

I dunno. You know. Something that makes money.

Well, pretty much everything makes money. What do you enjoy?

Huh? Whaddya mean? I thought you were talkin' 'bout where I wanted to work.

I was. Got any ideas?

Yeah, but they don't include stuff I enjoy, though. My parents want me to have a good job.

It's actually okay to enjoy your job.

I guess so, but I need to make a lot of money.

I'm sure everybody wants to make a lot of money, but we still don't know what you enjoy.

Yeah. You know, the only job I ever had that I really liked was working as a tutor, but you can't make any money at that. If I major in history, what's the best job I can get?

I would like to acknowledge that I do not make "a lot of money." I make "pretty good money" or "enough money" and despite my father's head scratching, he was generally okay with the fact that I was doing something I enjoyed. As a sort of maudlin side note, until I started seeing the hordes of young adults who needed to make a lot of money, I never really appreciated how much freedom my parents had given me in the career decision-making arena. The most ironic thing about this issue is that it seems that it is parents who only make "pretty good money" or "enough money" and who are generally okay with that for themselves that are culturally stimulated to want more for their kids.

I also understand quite well that this is a horrible generalization and is fraught with numerous problems that include gender and cultural issues, economic class differences, and all manner of variables that explain why a parent pushes their offspring to excel. (I know that somewhere a Darwinian devotee is castigating me for suggesting that this behavior is anything other that the manifestation of our struggle to preserve our gene pool.) I remember the first time someone said to me, "Well, you're rich. You don't know what it is like to not have everything." I have to remind myself that because I am making "pretty good" money, I sorta understand rich, but I have a tough time with poor.

It's never about the Benjamins.

I honestly wish that I could make this a law...

"The universe constitutes it to be felony, punishable by fines, upbraidings, and public humiliation for any adult to inform any minor about the salary or compensation for any occupation know to exist in this quadrant of the galaxy. Likewise, it will be deemed a misdemeanor if a parent requires that any individual to pursue a specific course of study other than that which the student him/herself deems to be interesting or fulfilling. Violations of this statute will be considered whether the student is a minor or of legal age."
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that all offspring make excellent decisions all the time. Nor do I believe that all parental units give lousy advice all the time. I go back to my own father, who gently let me know what he thought would be a stable career path, but allowed me to navigate by my own rules. I made my own decisions and sometimes they were poor decisions. They were, however, MY mistakes and I was much more invested in fixing them. I know this... I always wanted to be completely grown up and thought that would happen when I settled on a job or career that I felt was of my own choosing. The thing that my parents gave me was the freedom to choose, not once, but over and over. I did not need to grow up... I just needed to keep on growing.

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth,
We are happy when we are growing.
William Butler Yeats

1 comment:

  1. Great advice, Reb. I always enjoy reading your work here!