Despite the economy, 2011 graduates shouldn't abandon enthusiasm. Their deep, serious desires might be what saves them.
As the high school and college graduates of 2011 head out into the world (or back to their parents' homes, as the case may be), one could forgive them for feeling a bit confused. On the one hand, they've just been told at commencement exercises that the world is theirs to make and shape, that they should follow their dreams and passions, and that they are our hope for the future. On the other hand, they've also been told that the job market is dismal, that they'd better get serious about picking a place to live and a field where they can find a job, and that they'd better not set their expectations too high.
Don Peck, deputy managing editor at The Atlantic, wrote a piece earlier this year listing the obstacles facing graduates in poor economic times and cautioning them about taking time in their early- and mid-twenties to explore instead of getting serious about a career. "The window for getting onto a good track, arguably, is narrower than it used to be," he said.
New York Times columnist David Brooks went further than that. In a column last week, he argued that finding your passion and pursuing your dreams was something of a narcissistic endeavor, anyway.
"College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities," Brooks wrote. "But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to." Brooks also cautioned against what he called the "misleading mantra" of "expressive individualism" that encourages graduates to "find their passion and then pursue their dreams."
If I were a 22-year-old reading all this, the whole notion of adulthood would seem like a prison sentence worth trying to avoid. But more importantly, the entire premise upon which all this advice is based is false.
Passion, despite how often we use the term to tout company commitment or extol romantic excitement, is often misunderstood or confused with other motivations. Many people view dreams and passion exactly as Brooks painted it: as a hopelessly idealistic, selfish, or irresponsible choice that is diametrically opposed to commitment to others, responsibility, security, or success. But I have spent the past year and a half researching a book about passion and people who follow passionate paths in life, and nothing I've found backs up that premise or belief. Indeed, I would argue that passion is one of the most important elements in any effort to improve a community, build something of value in the world, and even survive tough times or a daunting economy. The fact that it also tends to lead to a sense of fulfillment within an individual is certainly one of its benefits—but it's not the driving force that compels someone down the passion road.
That's not to say that passion doesn't have its costs or risks. Passion is a very complex force that has many faces. But if we're going to throw the word around so much, and either extol graduates to follow it or caution them to steer clear of it, it's worth clarifying some common misconceptions about what passion is ... and isn't.
1. Passion is not the same thing as drive, ambition, greed, lust, or pursuit of hedonistic pleasure. While all of those things are powerful motivators, they operate differently than passion. Ambition, lust, greed, and pleasure are focused on getting external recognition or reward or satisfying one's own fleeting, narcissistic desires. Passion is a far more serious and far deeper motivator that compels one forward through hard work, sacrifice, and sometimes superhuman effort to accomplish a goal one views as important—not because of any external status or reward, but because it matters to the person pursuing it.
2. Passion is not incompatible with commitment and community. People pursuing passionate endeavors often speak of how "fulfilling" they find their work. But fulfillment isn't necessarily selfish. Fulfillment comes from a sense that what one does has a purpose, or generates a sense of meaning in one's life. And purpose and meaning rarely come from a life spent pursuing external rewards of money, status, power, or even hedonistic pleasure. It comes from building something of value, or having impact, or finding richness and art along a life path that has depth and significance.
To be sure, there are those whose passions lead them to make choices whose costs are borne by their family members. But there are also those whose passion leads them to make tremendous individual sacrifices for the sake of those around them. After all, passion, at its core, is an inspirational fire that is lit within a person by a vision of an alternative potential future—something other than what "is," something that, if he or she has the courage to pursue it, could become real. That vision might be personal, as with a romantic relationship or a dream of becoming a successful musician. But it can just as easily be a vision of a wrong righted, a community restored, a child healed, or a new and better piece of technology or scientific knowledge.
What's more, passion is all about commitment. To make a vision of an alternative future possible or real requires a tremendous amount of effort, with no guarantee of success. Passion, therefore, both requires and engenders commitment, almost above all else. Indeed, one of the reasons passion is so important in any transformative endeavor is because it is the element that keeps someone going when others would give up.
"Passion is essential to success," one Silicon Valley entrepreneur told me, "because passion is what leads to perseverance—especially when the dark times come. Anyone can have character when times are good. It's when times get tough that you need passion. Because that's what inspires you to keep going, to persevere. And without perseverance, you can't achieve anything."
3. In other words, passion is not a luxury that needs to be jettisoned in tough economic times. It is the most essential force a person can bring to a challenging job market ... not only because we tend to do our best when we're passionate about what we're doing, but also because passion is what inspires a person to keep pushing to find a way forward, no matter how tough the circumstances.
4. Passion is rarely found in a vacuum. Few people have a fire lit within themselves by sitting alone, staring at their navels. Passion comes most often from exploring and engaging with the world and imagining things that don't yet exist, but that inspire you to wonder, as Robert Kennedy once said ... why not? And beyond that, finding one of those possibilities that lights such a fire inside you that you will persevere through the challenges, effort, and dark nights to try to make it real.
So when we urge graduates to pursue dreams and passions, we are not telling them to satisfy selfish desires and neglect everyone else. We are challenging them to go explore the world and find something so compelling that they will dedicate their best energies to pursuing it. We do this knowing that the passionate roads are far from the easiest paths that they could take in life. Far easier to pursue a "steady" predetermined path or career that they will spend judging their accomplishments in dollars and counting the days until retirement. So why pursue the more challenging roads that are built and inspired by passion? Because that is how you save communities and transform the world. It's also the strongest weapon you can have for surviving tough times and standing out from the crowd.
Psychiatrist Victor Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived four concentration camps in World War II, discovered that those who best survived the camps were the people who had a passionate reason they felt they needed to survive: some unfinished work or commitment to others that compelled them to find a way to stay alive. Someone who "knows the 'why' of [their] existence," Frankl concluded, "will be able to bear almost any 'how.'"
So if we encourage graduates to go in search of something that inspires that kind of commitment and passion within them, it's because on some level, we understand that truth. And we would wish them that strength, that courage, and that ability to imagine and work toward not only a meaningful life but also a better world.
The Onion had a problem: It fell behind the times. The mock newspaper hadn’t printed an issue on actual paper since 2013, and in the period since, it never redesigned its website. As the media world changed—as the New York Times and the Washington Post adapted the ways they published stories online—The Onion lost a key satirical weapon. Visually, it no longer looked like many of the publications it parodied. And so, like it had done many times before, The Onion tagged along.
In 2008, I was elected governor of Delaware. In politics, timing is everything. You can be a fantastic candidate and run in a bad year for your party and get clobbered. You can be an absolute dud and run in the right year and get the brass ring. 2008 was a good year to be a Democrat.
But beyond the political benefit, my timing was awful. A month before I took office at the depths of the Great Recession, Chrysler closed its assembly plant in Newark, my hometown. A few months after my inauguration, General Motors shuttered its plant a few miles away. That fall, Valero closed its refinery. Those three employers had represented the best opportunities for high school graduates to get middle-class jobs for decades. Within a year, all were gone.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
When The Last Man on Earth debuted in March to critical praise and surprisingly strong ratings, it felt like a notable anomaly on network television. In its spare opening episode, creator/star Will Forte's vision of the post-apocalypse Earth featured a white-trash Monsieur Hulot-type wreaking wanton property destruction in Tucson and pilfering antiquities from the Smithsonian in an effort to stave off the crushing emptiness of the world. When another character (played by Kristen Schaal) entered the scene, it initially felt like sweet relief—someone for Forte's shellshocked wanderer to play off of—but then more people started rolling in, and the show became something far more nightmarish: a vision of the dating life of a single, entitled, American thirtysomething.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into their boss's office to negotiate their salaries is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to hostage negotiator Chris Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating.
Voss, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spent 24 years at the FBI. It was as an FBI agent that he started to get interested in hostage negotiations. At the time, a supervisor told him to start by volunteering at a suicide hotline to gain the set of listening abilities that a hostage negotiator needs. By 1992, he was training at the FBI's school for negotiators, and from 2004 to 2007, he was the FBI's lead international hostage negotiator. After retirement, Voss founded The Black Swan Group to bring negotiation know-how to the business world.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
In 2004, two women who were long past college age settled into a dorm room at a large public university in the Midwest. Elizabeth Armstrong, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, and Laura Hamilton, then a graduate assistant and now a sociology professor at the University of California at Merced, were there to examine the daily lives and attitudes of college students. Like two Jane Goodalls in the jungle of American young adulthood, they did their observing in the students’ natural habitat.
The researchers interviewed the 53 women on their floor every year for five years—from the time they were freshmen through their first year out of college.
Their findings about the students’ academic success later formed the basis for Paying for the Party, their recent book about how the college experience bolsters inequality. They found that the women’s “trajectories were shaped not only by income ... but also by how much debt they carried, how much financial assistance they could expect from their parents, their social networks, and their financial prospects.”
Before Napoleon Bonaparte uttered his last words ("France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Joséphine") and perished on the windswept island of Saint Helena at the age of 51, he reportedly treated himself to a feast. The exiled French leader scarfed down liver and bacon chops, sauteed kidneys in sherry, shirred eggs with cream, and garlic toast with roast tomatoes.
Those wishing to revisit his last meal might have a hard time recreating it—Trader Joe's doesn't stock kidneys, last I checked—but they can enjoy the next best thing. The food-advertising director Gus Filgate is creating a series of short films that reproduce the last meals of noteworthy individuals.
The one for Napoleon seems to hint at the visceral, brutal nature of 19th-century French rule: Lard snaps in an iron skillet; kidneys drip with milk; a tomato's head is severed and its guts spew out.