The Graduation Advice You Won't Hear: It's OK Not to Love Your Career

If you are anything like me the day I threw my hat in the air, you are simply not passionate about any one thing, yet; you’re interested in a lot of things, curious about pretty much everything, and desiring to make the world a better place — however you define it — but not set afire by one.

That’s OK! You have ample time to find that career-related passion; you may focus instead of a passion outside of your career; or you may end up helping someone else realize their passion. Never forget that, in almost all cases, you know what's best for you.

Your generation — our generation — was primed by two powerful forces early on: that we could be whatever we wanted to be: we were, and are, “special” — uniquely passionate, uniquely talented, and uniquely prepared to win; and that it’s our generation that can “change the world.” So, most of us came out of college and wondered, “How?!”

More than any other generation before us, we — men and women, thankfully — can be whatever we want. There are many more options available to us than were available for our parents and grandparents. If you have the skills to do many things well, you may be searching for that one that takes hold of you and seizes your mind, your hands, and your heart. Part of the problem with being able to be whatever you want to be is that, well, you have to know, and choose, what you want to be. The paradox of choice — too many options! — can lead to no small amount of anxiety and frustration; it’s a good problem to have, certainly, but a problem nonetheless.

You’re likely 22 or 23, fresh out of four years of learning. Maybe you knew what you were passionate about before freshman year began, and picked a major that allowed you to drill down deeper, to reframe and reformat your prior conceptions and beliefs and now have, as a result, a deeper understanding of that passion. If that’s you: congratulations! You’re exceptional.

For the rest of you, whose choice of major may have had less to do with passion and been borne more out of pragmatism, ease, or a building’s distance from your home (all three played into my choice), there is plenty of time to get passionate about something career-related — if that’s what you decide you want.

How? If a stream of passion hasn’t sprung naturally, finding it may require some boring; it’ll be an active process. Do a lot of random, contradictory activities, and pay attention to how you feel about them:

-Volunteer at an eye-level organization like a food shelter or Big Brothers Big Sisters, then do the same at a 30,000 foot-view think tank; which did you enjoy more? Do you like the person-to-person interaction and the feeling of helping that one person, or does the prospect of making large, systemic changes appeal to you?

-If you’re in a job that affords you the opportunity to do myriad different things, listen to your thoughts and moods as you’re doing them; what do you think about when you get up in the morning, the ones that give you energy and keep you working late in the evening? Maybe making a big presentation is exciting for you, or maybe you enjoy digging deep into data in Excel in order to tell a compelling story or make a sound argument. Whatever it is, pay attention — that’s a piece of your passion.

-Read widely — daily newspapers, trade magazines, blogs, Twitter — and keep track of the items you consistently seek out on Google, Wikipedia, or other outlets. Is there something you find yourself reading article after article about? That you find yourself bringing up during barroom debates and discussions with friends at parties? Head that direction.

-Go travel — to Bolivia, Burundi, or Bangladesh. Anywhere. Talk to people, think about what you miss, and experience something novel every day

If you decide to go that route, you’re in a great position to succeed; fail to find your true passion, and you still will have found what you don’t want to do, and will have a series of great learning experiences — and good times, to boot.

Something else worth acknowledging, though, is that it’s fine for you not to be passionate about anything related to your career choice. You won’t hear that from any other graduation speaker, and it isn’t what you were told to do as a kid. It’s still completely valid.

Despite what you hear from your friends, parents, or anyone else, it’s possible for you to be happy enough with your job and passionate about something else; your job can fund your other passion. Maybe you love traveling the world, or being outdoors, or competing in marathons, triathlons, and Ironmans. Sure, you can find a way to turn any of those passions into a job. But it’s far from clear that doing so is the best option for you. And maybe turning your passion into your job will suck away the enjoyment you take in it, anyway.

So find a job that you enjoy enough, with people you like, ample vacation time, and a decent paycheck — no small feat, to be sure — and use it to fund your passion, during vacations, weeknights, and weekends.

Finally, you can be passionate about a passionate person, too, a politician or a friend or an inspiring individual you meet. They may be desirous of your ability to organize, brainstorm, or commiserate. If you agree with their point of view, lend, or sell, them your time and your brain, hands, and heart; help them succeed at “winning” their passion. This isn’t mentioned in graduation speeches, but can be extraordinarily powerful and important, too.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t “dream big,” “reach for the stars,” “set out to change the world,” or any other saccharine bromide you’ll hear from past, present, and future graduation speeches. You should. But it’s quite possible to do all of those things in your own way, at your own pace, and even for other people's passions. So stop worrying, learn to love the uncertainty, and prepare for the next great adventure of your life. 

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Mike Miesen

Freelance journalist/consultant covering global health, American health policy, and development from East Africa. More at www.mikemiesen.com

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