Finding balance in the second half of life

Enter Career, Stage Right

In Family on March 9, 2010 at 12:22 am

Not too long ago, I again paid a price for eavesdropping. This particular conversation was between a parent and a college professor; the parent was concerned about the practicality—as measured by earning potential—of her daughter’s choice of major. And the price I pay is a tongue nearly bitten through, because I have so much to say to that parent.

I’m afraid that we are, as a nation and a culture, headed toward vocational education, and not just for those who don’t choose a “college track.” Even in higher education, we seem to pressure students to choose a major as though they’re choosing a life-long career. Never mind that these are kids who, at 18 or 19, hardly know what their career options might be. Never mind that it’s a rare teenager who’s had the “scope for imagination” (thanks, Anne of Green Gables) to find her real passions or talents. Never mind that nobody believes a single career will last a lifetime any more.

The conversation I overheard was at a liberal arts college, which at least suggests that the particular student will be exposed to a variety of subjects and disciplines. A liberal arts education, I think, does deliver on teaching students how to think and how to learn, both of which equip them to be agile in pursuing the careers they discover they’re interested in—or, let’s face it, in this economy—there’s opportunity in.

It may be overreaching to say that a liberal arts education also is foundational to a democracy, but I’d make that case: The more we understand about the breadth of experience and thinking that human history contains, the more prepared we are to build a society that is capacious enough to engage and affirm all of our citizens.

Within a liberal arts framework, I’m not sure it matters what the particular major is, unless there’s a particularly mature student with an extremely clear career goal. Becoming an MD, for example, requires a specific educational path. So does becoming an engineer. But for hundreds of thousands of students, a major is a stressful choice or an ambivalent evolution. And I’m just not convinced employers—or students or parents—should care.

I was able to parlay a theater major into a successful career in marketing, technology, product development, and communications. I’m not sure I ever seriously considered a career in theater, but I was attracted by the classes, which represented a variety of topics and tactile, physical skills, and put all the pieces together in a practical way. To stage a Shakespeare play, for example, we needed to understand enough of the geography and the history of the place where the story was set. We had to parse poetry and expand our vocabularies to understand how to convey the story. We studied color theory and science to design the lighting and design principles and geometry to envision a buildable set. We hammered and painted and sewed and sawed. We figured out who would come to the play, sold them tickets, and balanced the books. And we had a heck of a good party on closing night.

That’s an interdisciplinary education, and along the way I learned a number of other things:

  • Unless you want to do the same thing over and over again, you have to keep learning. If we only wanted to produce Shakespeare, maybe we could slow our pace. But since we also wanted to act Harold Pinter and Tennessee Williams, we needed curious minds and the initiative to track down answers.
  • There’s nothing like a well-publicized opening night to make sure you’re getting things done. Once you’ve published your schedule and sold some tickets, you’re committed. You figure out what kinds of trade-offs can be made when the unexpected happens. You surpass the limits you assumed, find energy and resources you didn’t know you had. You amaze yourself.
  • Budget and deadline are two additional criteria for a design problem. You can stage a play without spending any money at all; you can also spend millions of dollars. Not having a big budget or a lot of time doesn’t let you off the hook creatively (although, of course, you need to be clear-eyed about the objectives of the project!).
  • Once you’ve made Peter Pan fly across the stage, replicated a believable shipwreck, or gotten an audience to gasp in despair together, you start believing that very nearly anything may be possible. Believing in possibilities is the first step in relationships, business, volunteer work, and your own creative projects.
  • Great teams work when there’s common purpose, clearly defined roles, diversity of talents and expertise, and respect among the members. Nobody expects the carpenter who’s building the set to be the lead actor, too (although it can happen). No one thinks the show can go on without the lighting crew. The leading man is profoundly grateful to the wardrobe crew when his ripped costume gets stitched up during intermission.
  • And finally, the work is not the person. The degree to which personal identities get tied up and confused with the work can be a handicap to any organization. When you’ve got 10 or 30 or 50 people working on a show, it’s always about the show. Sure, occasionally there was a stereotypical theatrical ego, but we were working within a useful construct: the show, the cast, the crew. And the best actors were those who recognized that delivering solo lines did not make magic; what made magic was the interplay, the energy, the tension among the characters in the play.

While I’m clear on the benefits of my own educational experience, I won’t claim that the Theater Department is the only place lessons like these can be learned. My daughter, mysteriously a biology major, may be learning lessons much like these from dissecting cats. I’m certain, though, that the value of the major is not in the specific content—which is likely Google-able and evolving as new discoveries are made—but in the process of learning and working together.

Back to that mother. Here’s what I would have said if I hadn’t been bloodying my tongue: Please let your daughter find her own way. Encourage her to postpone choosing a major as long as possible. Let her think about, experiment with, the areas that pique her interest. Help her to see that it’s her initiative, her creativity, her network, and some luck that will determine her financial future—and that there are more ways to measure success than a salary level. Show her that her college major is just one piece of a life of learning, which she can design—and redesign—for the next 70 years.

–Lois Maassen

  1. I wish that someone had shared these insights when I was in high school. I still managed to find my way to a career I love and that doesn’t pay well (especially now!), but probably only because of that remarkable teenage “you can’t make me, I will do whatever I please” spirit. Remember high school “guidance” counselors? They were no help at all.

  2. Our guidance counselor was a grandmotherly woman named Esther in sensible black lace-up oxfords. I don’t remember ever talking to her–beyond hellos–except about the yearbook budget.

  3. You know, my boys’ father thinks that we (read I) made a mistake in letting them find their own way *instead* of pushing a liberal arts education. My first two focused in early on their passions (film and painting) and the third can’t wait to get to college so he can concentrate on jazz. I’ve tried to get all of them to apply to places like Hope and Kalamazoo College, but they have no interest in what they see as a continuation of high school.

  4. Debra, I think you have those particularly mature kids who *do* have a clear sense of calling from and early age. And I think your kids probably have lots of what my kids’ elementary school teachers called “prior knowledge”–which comes from living in a house with consciousness of the world around us. And, come to think of it, they’ve gone to a better-than-average high school… So they’ve got it *all* going on! What disturbs me most is kids choosing a major because they think they have to… and then finding themselves lukewarm to disenchanted to/with it.

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