Maybe you’ve heard one of these before:
“Do what you love, love what you do.”
“You can do anything if you set your mind to it.”
“Follow your dream.”
And maybe these sound familiar to you:
A sense of shame…
…for “selling out” and accepting that job/internship in finance or consulting.
…for not making as much money as your friends in finance or consulting.
…for not pursuing a career in the arts.
…for pursuing a career in the arts and making no money doing it.
I’m currently going through the nightmarish post-grad job search. With fewer than two months until graduation, no interest in moving back in with my parents come May 22, and a slew of classmates wh o already seem to have it all figured out, I constantly think about all the résumés and cover letters I’ve sent out. But there’s more: I’m not expected to get just any job, but my “dream job.” If I’m not following my passion, being intellectually stimulated, and changing the world, with a six-figure salary to boot, I’m somehow a failure.
I may be exaggerating, but the other day, when I sent my friend a text about a promising interview I’d had for a paralegal job, he replied, “That’s cool! Sounds really dull, though.”
We live in a society where it’s understood that, with enough hard work and perseverance, you can do anything. “The American Dream” is reflected in the stories of tech start-ups making millions of dollars overnight, of Oscar-winning actors getting discovered in the supermarket. We’re told it doesn’t matter where we grew up or what we look like: If we follow our passions and work hard enough, we’ll lead happy and successful lives as astronauts, Pulitzer-prize winners, and even presidents.
This rhetoric is exacerbated at a place like Columbia. Most of us grew up with adults telling us that we were smart and talented, sure to succeed. We made it to this school, which was a big achievement in itself. And there are a lot of students here who have truly impressive accomplishments at age 19. The expectation is that, after all the work and money that went into our elite education, we should be coming out of it with a promising future.
But how that future is defined varies from person to person, which makes it a slippery concept—impossible to satisfy. I have friends set to work in finance or consulting who are embarrassed to tell people about it, having heard the same “finance is evil” trope over and over again. I have friends planning on careers in theater who have been told their education at Columbia was a waste of time and money. I have friends working low-paying jobs they love, who are pressured to find something more lucrative. Those of us who just don’t know what our passions are get left in the dust. It seems we just can’t win.
To be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to find careers we are passionate about or that we shouldn’t aim for success, both in the workplace and in our personal lives. I do want to feel good about my career and do good in the world. But the reality is that we are in a tough job market where it’s not enough to have great grades at a great school. Impressive internships and intensive quantitative skills are becoming the new standard for job qualifications. Many of us had to spend summers working to pay off student loans instead of taking unpaid internships.
There was a great article in Slate a few months ago that discussed how the “do what you love” mantra only applies to elites with the disposable income and time to follow their passions. It devalues workers without glamorous jobs, and assumes that they don’t have enough passion or drive to find something better. In reality, for many people, their jobs are a way to make ends meet, perhaps the only way available to them. It’s important to recognize how privileged we are—we have the luxury to choose a job for its ranking on the “passion” and “do-good” scales.
The point is, it’s tough enough to find a decent job that will pay New York City rent. When we start assigning moral value to the jobs our peers are considering, we’re just putting unnecessary pressure, not only on them, but also on ourselves. We can’t expect our first job to be the perfect one, and it’s OK to try a few out to see what fits. Maybe you disapprove of your friend’s job in finance. Keep it to yourself. Support them. And if you’re hitting the job market hard like I am, remind yourself that it’s all going to be alright. It may take time to find a job, and there’s no shame in accepting one that’s less than ideal. We’re young and fresh out of college—we should have some adventures thrown our way.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.