This is the question posed in Jon Lovett’s speech to the graduating class of 2013. The stand-up comedian turned speechwriter turned sitcom writer addressed graduates on the power of earnestness, the needs for authenticity, and the pitfalls and virtues of being young, smart and quite possibly wrong/right about a lot of things.
Personally I really enjoyed the speech – as a girl settling into my late twenties and coming to terms with the grey-haired, craggy faced generation he jokingly refers to, I find it really helpful to hear speeches like this one that remind me how much possibility and life there is in my time here on earth. I can only imagine others feel the same way.
But I would extend this a little for the rest of us – those of us who aren’t 23 years old, those of us with a few years under our belts, some professional experience and some need for focus and purpose in their lives.
Carl McCoy’s WSJ article Dear Grads, Don’t ‘Do What You Love’ also rang very true, focusing on the importance of not simply following something you love. I, for one, love knitting. I also love rock climbing, and political speech writing, food, dancing, lightsabers and prog rock. Does that means I should pursue a career in those things? No, it means I love them. Yes, I do own a lightsaber, rock out to RUSH on Pandora almost every day at work and so forth. But the idea here is that loving a thing isn’t enough (because it really, really isn’t). Yes, by all means love what you love, but know that fulfillment and joy (yes joy) in what you do comes from something deeper – it comes from a sense of your work being worth it. Worth the time, energy, resources, life. Your work has meaning, and that sense of meaning is what can validate you.
My story on doing what I love goes like this (so far): After college, I got the dream job: a high-paying entry-level position in city government in NYC. And it was… well, for me it was a pretty awful fit. I got to do some amazing work, but it was all on my own time and off the clock, simply because of the relationships I’d built up while I was working there. So yeah, meaning was something I got in under the radar.
After that came Americorps/part-time grocery job. I learned a lot about dealing with the world, managing money, understanding human beings and more while I was there, but the AmeriCorps gave me meaning and next to nothing to live on. Food pantries I worked with actually fed me because they knew we weren’t paid beyond our stipend (mine was an extravagant $200/month).
When my service there ended I traveled a little but was strapped down with student debt, and that meant more working at the grocery till I could find something better. Eventually, after moving back to NYC from San Francisco, I got the guts to walk into a yarn shop I liked and asked for a job (after all, I LOVED knitting, what could POSSIBLY GO WRONG doing what I LOVED?) and landed a part-time gig there doing marketing for the store. That eventually bloomed into a full-time position, and after 5 months full-time I handed in my 2 weeks notice. Working in the industry completely drained me – I had a deptartment head I loved who taught me great things about management and marketing and coworkers I still keep in touch with – I also did do great work there, doubling the social media followership and writing about 7 unique blog posts a week. I loved writing, crafting, and writing about crafts, but I learned there that just loving something doesn’t make it the industry for you – it makes it something you love. I still knit and even write about it, and attend my weekly knitting circle. But I feel free now not only because I am free of what was becoming a toxic situation, but also because that work was devoid of meaning for me. I couldn’t see who I’d be helping if I made that post about the yarn sale more colorful, or changed the list format on a blog post for a store. The magic that made me love my hobby didn’t translate to my day to day – and thank god I had the tools to figure out other work I could do where I would feel the meaning of what I did all day.
Now I work for a group whose mission is to help purpose driven groups in the city. While I don’t see them every day, I can just visit their sites or call them up and know how much they are trying to do to save the environment and help their communities. I know that the people I support do work with meaning, and that means what I do for them has meaning.
So yeah, I still ponder running away and spending a week in the alps, or interning at the Toronto Food Strategy group, but I know that I am doing well – I can improve from here while supporting myself, not the starving artist and not the titan of entrepreneurship. As Lovett says in his speech, 20s are a time to do these things, to “dance with beautiful strangers” – which I’ll go ahead and think of as a metaphor for experiences, since I’ve never been much for the club scene. I’ve learned by doing, I’ve tried out different lifestyles and enjoyed many things. I’ve learned to really value the friends in my life, which, to use marketing jargon, has incredible ROI for self development and real meaning. I’ve learned to be in touch with my voice, to explore the world and treasure the beautiful things in it, which is something I thought I knew at 23, but really probably had very little confidence in. Also, I cry less when I open bills now, but that’s another story.
The B*ullsh*t Tipping Point in that video up at the top refers to the dilution of authenticity, and the problem of blurring strangers and friends, and the meaninglessness of generalized communication via social media. With so much in the way of marketing mixed with dilute camaraderie being spoon fed to recent graduates, Lovett suggests that now is a time when we may be at a tipping point; truth, authenticity and genuine meaning are doing their best to come back into vogue, and this up-and-coming graduate pool may just be the group to bring the issue to a head.
Personally I hope so, I think we could all probably do with a little more purpose, a little less navel gazing and a lot more joy in what we do and have done with our lives. ::She typed into her blog and shared through her social media channels::