Here’s to Not Following Your Passion

I was searching “career change” on Reddit last week, shopping around for possible subreddits where I might link my blog to find a larger audience. I came across this post in r/engineering. It’s a question from a 30-year-old redditor who is thinking of quitting his unsatisfying job in IT to become a civil or mechanical engineer and is looking for advice and validation. Burrowowl’s comment about halfway down the page got me thinking (yet again) about how much joy we can and should get from our jobs.

Reddit: for when you should be doing almost anything else.

Reddit: for when you should be doing almost anything else.

At the end of burrowowl’s lengthy comment describing the frustrating details of his day-to-day work as a civil engineer, he says:

“I had one project a while back that renovated a school for blind kids. That is all sorts of warm and fuzzy. But the day-to-day shit to get to that point is some times very mind numbing. For every day you use your judgement and your abstract thinking you will spend a week with the nuts and bolts implementation that is a whole lot less exciting.”

This should have discouraged me. It did, for a fraction of a second, and then it didn’t. A self-proclaimed overthinker, I’ve chewed on this topic for more time than is probably healthy. I spent years mulling over my abilities and interests when I was trying to decide whether or not to change careers. I wanted to figure out what my real passion was, so I could focus my life’s work on that.

I never figured out a realistic career passion. Maybe I don’t have one. Anyway, the point is, I woke up on a plane and the universe had decided that I should become an engineer, the job my dad had been telling me I’d be good at for pretty much my entire life. I don’t have a passion for engineering. I like math. I like problem-solving. I am good with details. Engineering is a high-paying field with stable, in-demand jobs. So that’s what I’m doing. And I’m as confident as ever that this is the right choice.

I don’t think people should follow their passions. Stay with me here. What if someone actually is passionate about engineering? I fear that person is going to be incredibly disappointed and frustrated when they become an engineer and discover that the day-to-day work is often repetitive, bureaucratic and uninspiring. Worse still are all the wide-eyed, idealistic people who think they are doing the “right” thing by following their passion and becoming artists, musicians, writers and other creative professionals. I should know – once upon a time I was one of them.

One of three things will happen to someone pursuing a creative passion. One: they will not be able to make a living, be it working for a company or doing their own thing, and will be forced to get a “day job.” Two: they will be able to get a job in their field but will come to realize that being creative for clients and income forces so much compromise and “trimming down” of real creativity that they have trouble finding much of the joy they originally got from their work. Three: they will be highly successful in their work, paid well, and will be afforded the creative freedom that makes them love their work every day.

Scenario three is extremely, extremely rare. And yet, scenario three is exactly what we’re all looking for in our career, whether in a creative field or not. That’s what our culture tells us we should want above all else. And dammit, if we’re not enjoying scenario three every day of our working lives, we’re doing something wrong.

Or, maybe, work is work. Maybe instead of going into our careers with the expectation that they will fulfill our deepest passions, we should go into them knowing that we have the skills and the willingness to do them well and that we believe in the overall mission. I do think that we need to have an understanding of what the day-to-day work entails and that we need to be able and willing to do that work. I also think that we need to feel good about the ultimate outcome of our work (I, for example, would prefer not to work for an oil company because I want to benefit the environment). But our jobs don’t need to make us feel like Julie Andrews in the opening scene of The Sound of Music.

I want to wake up Monday morning feeling like this. What? No?

I want to wake up Monday morning feeling like this. What? No?

Yep, it kind of sucks that we have to relegate our passions to off-hours (click that link, it’s hilarious), but the truth is, most of us do. If you can get away with living scenario three, hats off to you. You, sir or madame, have won. Congratulations! But most of us are in our most fortunate position if we can find work that we are good at, that we don’t mind doing most days, and that pays the bills.

I love art and I love writing. I went to school for graphic design because it seemed more likely that I could find a graphic design job than support myself as a writer. I did find a graphic design job. Several of them. And in doing work for clients, my work is more often than not repetitive, bureaucratic and uninspiring. I turn down fun design work from friends and family because after “designing” all day at work, it’s the last thing I want to do when I get home.

This about sums it up.

This about sums it up.

People sometimes ask me if I will miss graphic design. No, I won’t. I’ll actually get to do graphic design again, for fun, on my own terms. I can’t wait. Thank god I didn’t pursue writing as a career. What a tragedy it would have been to lose my passion for it. I write in the evenings or on weekends. I write this blog. I write whatever the heck I want. And that’s how I want it to stay.

So here’s to not pursuing our passions (at least not eight to five). Here’s to realistic expectations. Here’s to giving it our all in the off hours. Cheers!

Lions, and Tigers and Tests…Oh My!

I have two tests coming up, so this is the post wherein I complain about tests. Sort of.

I love learning – absolutely love it. The process of being introduced to a topic and being confused and stressed and disoriented and then slowly, with reading and practice and reflection, mastering that material and understanding it inside and out and being able to explain it to someone else – that feeling is one of the most satisfying things I do in my life. Recognizing how much I enjoy that feeling has helped me realize that I want to structure my life and my career so that I am constantly learning and being challenged.

Along with learning comes testing. While I don’t love tests any more than anyone else, I appreciate the work it takes to prepare for a test and I like the opportunity to prove what I’ve learned. Considering how much work goes into learning and preparing, it’s frustrating when the test doesn’t do justice to what I’ve learned.

Tests! The stress! The panic! The horror!Photo courtesy of kharied's photostream on Flickr.com

Tests! The stress! The panic! The horror!
Photo courtesy of kharied’s photostream on Flickr.com

I’ve been tested in a wide variety of ways over the past three years. Some ways have been fair and effective and have left me feeling good about my effort. Other ways have left me frustrated, angry and feeling powerless. I’m sure that some of these methods work well for me but terribly for others and vice versa. Some, I’m certain, work terribly for everyone. So, behold, my inventory of bad testing scenarios. Enjoy, and tell me in the comments if you’ve had similar experiences with testing.

The “Watch Them Sweat” Test
Some tests are too hard. A test is not the place to present students with problems at a level they’ve never dealt with before. I’m all for being challenged. I like to stretch my abilities, but that type of challenge should be presented on a homework assignment where students have time to think and, if needed, ask for help. I took a class last summer where each test was peppered with a staccato of students whispering curses under their breath. It’s terrifying to be presented with a test featuring problems you don’t even know how to start. I’m convinced professors do this for personal entertainment. Thankfully last summer’s class was heavily curved, but that can never erase the traumatic memory of those tests.

The Cake Walk
Some tests are too easy. They are. Sure, it’s nice to get an A, but getting an A without any effort just doesn’t feel very good. There’s nothing more frustrating than working all weekend on practice problems, shuffling through flash cards 16 times a day, maybe even flipping to the back of the chapter to do some of the really hard examples, only to show up test day and realize you’ve completely wasted your time. Working hard ought to be worth something.

The Everything Plus the Kitchen Sink
Some tests are too long. The material may be reasonable, but the test stretches page after page and there isn’t enough time to dedicate to each question. Students end up either rushing through and making mistakes or spending too much time on the beginning of the test and not finishing. If you’re quick, you can analyze the questions and dedicate most of your time to those that are worth the most points, but if all questions are equally weighted, you have to pick out the questions you can complete most quickly, allowing you to complete a higher quantity. All of these thought processes take away from the task at hand, namely demonstrating knowledge and completing questions thoughtfully and correctly.

The All the Eggs in One Basket
Some tests are too short. If a test asks only two or three questions, you have very little room for error before your grade takes a nosedive. With luck, the two or three question will be long, multi-step problems that can be graded with partial credit, but if a mistake is made at the very beginning of a problem, you won’t have much hope. Yes, students should know the material, but tests create a lot of anxiety. People get nervous and make mistakes. One mistake shouldn’t mean the difference between an A and a C.

All the eggs. One basket. No!Photo courtesy of Billie Hara’s photostream on Flickr.com

All the eggs. One basket. No!
Photo courtesy of Billie Hara’s photostream on Flickr.com

The Trick, No Treat
Some tests try to trick you. I’ve never experienced a whole test filled with trick questions, but I’ve had them here and there. Trick questions are cute, they’re clever. Professors like to ask them and then give the punch line when they return the test. Trick questions are posed like serious questions, but some detail in their set-up is designed to make you think – wait…I don’t think you can do that. The problem with trick questions on a test is that you’re nervous, you’re afraid you’ve forgotten some important detail, so when you get to the trick question you automatically assume you’ve just missed something, that you’re an idiot, and that you better just hobble along the best you can with the question even though it doesn’t make sense. You’re never confident enough during a test to say – no, this is a trick question, well played…well played. Instead, you’re the one that gets played.

Whenever I’m in one of these bad testing situations, I’m always left wondering – how is this preparing me for my career?  Will someone at my future job be standing over me with a stopwatch as I sweat through an engineering design problem? Will I be sitting in a room with no computer and no internet access and be asked to recall formulas?

In the real world there are colleagues to partner with, there are reference books and Google to supply formulas and definitions if you need them. Over time, and with experience, formulas and definitions get memorized without our even trying. We learn to work quickly and efficiently simply because we have mastered the skills and processes by using them over and over to solve problems. The best tests, and the best instructors, help us begin to master these skills and processes. They help us see the big picture so that we want to understand the details. They help us (continue to) love learning.

But Does She Use Her Brain?

Earlier this semester I was sitting, waiting for my class to start. The class is Statistics for Scientists and Engineers. Almost all of us are engineering majors. I’m one of five girls in the class. Three of us usually sit by ourselves, but the other two are friends and always sit together. That day they were sitting together with their laptops open, searching for easy 2-credit electives for next year.

A guy behind them was throwing out suggestions – fencing, golf, there is apparently a wine tasting class…fun things like that. A few minutes later one of the girls mentioned ceramics. My ears perked up and I smiled a little, thinking “Good luck with that. Not only are studio art classes six to eight hours per week with loads of out-of-class work, but they’re impossible to get into unless you’re an art major.” I was vaguely annoyed that she would even mention “studio art” in the same context as “easy elective.”

Two credits to do this? Sign me up!
Photo courtesy of Jonas’ Design’s photostream on Flickr.com

The other girl chimed in and said that her roommate was a studio art major and was taking a ceramics class that semester. Apparently the roommate had been talking about how challenging ceramics was and also how physically difficult it was on her arms since they had been using the pottery wheel. The girl then quipped, mockingly, “and I was like…yeah…but does she use her brain?”

Just a little bit of a punch to the gut for this eavesdropping former art major. While I can’t defend art as a major that one should seriously consider for its great career promise, the mocking tone she used when describing her roommate was really offensive on many levels. As someone who actually got a degree in studio art and is now getting a degree in engineering, I can say with authority that art majors (at least the good, hard working, dedicated ones) work just as hard as engineering majors and absolutely use their brains. They work on very different things and they use very different parts of their brains, but they work every bit as hard. I personally busted my butt for four years in art school.

A lot harder than it looks.Photo courtesy of Old Shoe Woman's photostream on flickr.

A lot harder than it looks.
Photo courtesy of Old Shoe Woman’s photostream on flickr.

This is a big, messy topic for me, and probably one that I’ll explore in future posts, but something I’ve always struggled with, even back when I was in college the first time, was the perception that creative people are lazy, aren’t smart, just “draw pictures all day,” and that art isn’t an important, useful pursuit. You may be thinking – who is she to talk, she’s the one abandoning art for a traditional “smart person” major. I want to be very careful to point out that I’m leaving the world of art and design not because I don’t respect it, but because I think the way my brain works is better suited to math and science and the world of things with right and wrong answers. I have tremendous respect for creativity and creative people. Part of what pushed me away from design was the nagging sense that the truly great designers and artists were creative on a level that I couldn’t even understand, let alone tap into. I’m a perfectionist. I like to be good at what I do, and I knew I would never been as good a designer as I wanted to be.

My classmate may be surprised to learn that ceramics involves quite a lot of science and chemistry. Ceramics students mix their own glazes using powdered substances she would likely recognize from her chemistry class. Ceramics students mix their own clay from giant, heavy bags of various powders to meet the specific requirements of whatever piece they are sculpting. Ceramics students experiment with firing their pieces at a wide variety of temperatures for a wide variety of times to create the just the right effect. There is a lot of science and a lot of trial and error.

No, glaze doesn’t come in tubes like it did in grade school.
Photo courtesy of San Francisco State University

She might be surprised to hear that an art student with four art courses is spending 24 – 36 hours in class each week and then spending countless hours outside of class sculpting, painting, photographing, retouching, scrapping and re-doing. She may be surprised to hear that art students “live” in the art building the same way engineering students “live” in the engineering building. And then, when all the blood, sweat and tears have been shed, art students can never truly be sure if they’re “done,” and can never know if they’ve done it “right.” Everything is always a work in progress.

Art isn’t an easy major. It’s not a blow-off major. Art is a major in which you work very, very hard and get very little respect from the outside world as a result. Real artists, good artists, are very good at seeing the big picture. They’re very good at making connections and seeing the things that are in between other things, things that most people miss. They’re strategic thinkers, they’re thematic thinkers. They’re good at seeing how the parts relate to the whole.

I don’t regret earning my art degree. I met amazing people, some of whom I’m still close with to this day. I gained an incredible appreciation for art and artists. I learned new ways of seeing things and new ways of creating things. I learned that even people who think they can’t draw (and yes, a lot of art students think this), actually can draw pretty well if they practice six hours a week. And in the process, there’s a lot to be gained from sitting and observing and really seeing things during that time you’re learning to draw.

Da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Yeah, makes sense.

Da Vinci was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Yeah, makes sense.

I know as a country that we’re embarrassingly far behind the rest of the world in math and science. I absolutely agree that we need to improve. But I hate to think that we’re sacrificing art (and music and dance and philosophy and all the liberal arts) to get there. Artists do use their brains. And they use them in ways that can be of great service to math and science too.