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.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Stormborn,” the first episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
Spencer Kornhaber: Game of Thrones ended its latest episode with a good-old-fashion pirate ambush, eliminating two out of three of the Sand Snakes and subjecting Theon to a humiliating self-directed walk of the plank. As far as late-episode twists go, Euron Greyjoy’s at-sea ambush was a solid one, injecting real suspense and unsettling violence into what had seemed like a straightforward sail. Yet, in the end, it was also a typical Thrones-ian calamity: You’d best bet against the side you want to win.
Many point to unromantic 20-somethings and women’s entry into the workforce, but an overlooked factor is the trouble young men have in finding steady, well-paid jobs.
TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.
Thirty-one year old Ezra Cohen-Watnick holds the intelligence portfolio on the National Security Council—but almost everything about him is a mystery.
Just 24 days into his tenure as Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, Michael Flynn was forced to resign, having reportedly misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russian officials. When Flynn departed, the men and women he’d appointed to the National Security Council grew nervous about their own jobs, and with good reason. The new national-security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, promptly began clearing out Flynn’s people, among them Dave Cattler, the deputy assistant to the president for regional affairs, Adam Lovinger, a strategic affairs analyst on loan from the Pentagon, and KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy, who was eased out with the ambassadorship to Singapore. Even Steve Bannon, among the most powerful people in the White House, was removed from the meetings of the NSC Principal’s Committee, where he had been installed early on in the administration.
Biology textbooks tell us that lichens are alliances between two organisms—a fungus and an alga. They are wrong.
In 1995, if you had told Toby Spribille that he’d eventually overthrow a scientific idea that’s been the stuff of textbooks for 150 years, he would have laughed at you. Back then, his life seemed constrained to a very different path. He was raised in a Montana trailer park, and home-schooled by what he now describes as a “fundamentalist cult.” At a young age, he fell in love with science, but had no way of feeding that love. He longed to break away from his roots and get a proper education.
At 19, he got a job at a local forestry service. Within a few years, he had earned enough to leave home. His meager savings and non-existent grades meant that no American university would take him, so Spribille looked to Europe.
Getting too little sleep can have serious health consequences, including depression, weight gain, and heart disease. It is torture. I know.
I awoke in a bed for the first time in days. My joints ached and my eyelids, which had been open for so long, now lay heavy as old hinges above my cheekbones. I wore two pieces of clothing: an assless gown and a plastic bracelet.
I remembered the hallway I had been wheeled down, and the doctor’s office where I told the psychiatrist he was the devil, but not this room. I forced myself up and stumbled, grabbing the chair and the bathroom doorknob for balance. I made it to the toilet, then threw water on my face at the sink, staring into the mirror in the little lavatory. My tousled hair shot out around my puffy face; my head throbbed. I looked hungover.
In those first moments, I remembered the basics about what had landed me in the hospital: Some pseudo-philosophical ranting and flailing brought on by a poorly executed experiment to see how long I could last without sleep.
I used to adore the Pride and Prejudice author. But over the years I’ve grown more ambivalent toward her and the fervor for her work.
I once confessed to an audience gathered for a pre-show talk about Pride and Prejudice that I felt a bit salty to see so many of them in attendance. A few months earlier, I explained, I’d given an absolutely fascinating lecture on Mary Shelley to maybe five people, one of whom was my Aunt Carmen. The crowd for Jane Austen—and it was a crowd—laughed. A mix of students, folks from the surrounding towns, and my colleagues were there to see a stage adaptation of what is arguably the author’s most popular novel. It was my job to introduce the performance, and I was terrified. It’s no small thing to talk about Austen in public. There’s always a cluster of people who have been reading her since before they could walk, and they not only have strong opinions but also know her and her writing like my mother knew the Bible.
Why some progressives are minimizing Russia’s election meddling
When it comes to possible collusion with Russia, Donald Trump’s most interesting defenders don’t reside on the political right. They reside on the political left.
Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich aren’t defending a principle. They’re defending a patron. Until recently they were ultra-hawks. Now, to downplay Russia’s meddling in the 2016 elections, they sound like ultra-doves. All that matters is supporting their ally in the White House.
For left-wing defenders like Max Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, ideology is king. Blumenthal and Greenwald loathe Trump. But they loathe hawkish foreign policy more. So they minimize Russia’s election meddling to oppose what they see as a new Cold War.
The world has many coming-of-age traditions: sweet sixteens, bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras. But in one African country, 'initiation' is endangering the health of girls and boys.
CHIRADZULU, Malawi — A slight frame gives her the appearance of a child, but the hardened look Grace Mwase wears makes her seem older than her 14 years. In many villages across Malawi, a largely agrarian sliver of a country in southern Africa, custom dictates that both boys and girls as young as eight attend a rite of passage known as “initiation,” after which they are no longer seen as children. The practice is most entrenched in the country's south, where Mwase's Golden Village is located.
Mwase was just 10 when she was led, along with about a dozen other girls, to remote huts outside her village during winter vacation from school in August. The girls were accompanied by older women from their village in Chiradzulu district, near the border with Mozambique. The women, known as anamkungwi, or “key leaders,” told them that when they returned to their villages they should cook and clean—and have sex. According to Mwase, most of the two weeks she spent at the initiation camp were dedicated to learning how to engage in sexual acts. She had been excited for this time with friends away from home, but that feeling quickly gave way to dread as she learned the true purpose of initiation.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
Even hardcore devotees disagree, though many acknowledge there’s something profoundly spiritual about catching waves—a feeling scientists attribute to the power of being in the water.
A decade ago, working my first journalism job while also pretending I surfed for a living, I rented a cheap loft in a three-story Victorian across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The home is still there as it was. Seahorses are still engraved in the blue window shutters, and the same landlord, Carol Schuldt, can still be found feeding her chickens in the backyard. If she’s not out surfing.
Schuldt—who I also write about in my new memoir, All Our Waves Are Water—is something of San Francisco's patron surf saint, her home a pelagic shrine where local surfers have long left firewood offerings. At 83, after a lifetime of wave riding, helping beach bums find cheap rent, and sometimes helping them get off drugs, too, Schuldt still rides her rusted beach cruiser to the dunes and bodysurfs these frigid waves without a wetsuit. “It’s where I can still connect to the Universal Mind,” she told me while we hiked the ice-planted dunes a few years ago, “to God, Jaimal—you know.”