Commencement speakers often tell graduates to follow their dreams. When it comes to jobs, however, following your dream can too easily result in nightmares. American composer Charles Ives
didn't fall into that trap. Neither did my own father and grandfather.
Ives (1874-1954) was a gifted musician, becoming a church organist at age 14. His musician father got him started composing. His composition studies continued at Yale, where his First Symphony was written as his senior thesis.
He went on to compose three more symphonies and many other works, but his music was so far ahead of its time that it was largely ignored and never made him any money. Fortunately, he didn't need to make money from his music. He went into the insurance business, founded his own company, and made several million dollars when a dollar was worth ten to fifteen times more than it is today.
Ives' life suggests a major lesson about the nature of work. Work, of course, is extremely important, and rightly honored in the United States with its own holiday. But how should we decide what kind of job to seek?
One approach is to identify a "dream job" and then try to land it. Occasionally this works. But for many of us, it can lead us into blind alleys. What if we can't find that ideal job? What if it pays so poorly that it leaves us in dire poverty? Or what if we find the dream job but learn that we actually hate that kind of work?
Rigid preconceptions about how we want to earn a living are a bad idea, since they may blind us to the opportunities to earn an honest living which always exist.
It is better to evaluate actual opportunities and pick the job that appears most promising. This won't necessarily promise the highest income, but it will offer the best available combination of income, future prospects, intrinsic interest, importance of the work, and a lifestyle matching our values and other interests.
My paternal grandfather (1879-1960) did exactly this. Family tradition was to pursue a medical career. His father, grandfather, and great grandfather deLespinasse had been medical doctors in Iowa, and before that, in the Netherlands. But he was also a very talented musician and realized that the unpredictable schedule of a medical doctor (on call day and night back then) would not allow him flexibility to pursue his musical interests.
Rather than going to medical school, he became a dentist and moved to Oregon. While earning a good
living as a dentist, he organized an outstanding community band in his small town, leading it for several decades. He also served as mayor, the only person in our family to make good politically!
My own father (1912-2006) majored in physics because of his interest in electronics. But graduating during the Depression, the best job he could find was teaching high school math and physics in a small town in Eastern Oregon. When the principal learned that Dad (having grown up in a bandmaster's house) played several instruments, he asked him to start a school band, too. The band was so successful that another Eastern Oregon high school hired him mainly to teach music.
Career decisions need not be forever. My father's circumstances changed abruptly on December 7, 1941. World War II saw demand for people with a physics background zoom, and Dad was hired by the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. to work on developing airborne radar. He later shifted several more times between music teaching and electronic engineering, as opportunities came and went, but always had good and interesting jobs.
A college degree is not needed for many worthwhile jobs, and it is possible to become well educated without ever going to college. But when technological change constantly creates new job opportunities and destroys old ones, the flexibility promoted by a good education — formal, or informal — can be very helpful in finding work. Being able to evaluate a complicated situation and figure out how to take maximum advantage of it can be a critical career skill in dynamic economies.
Thanks to his opportunism, Charles Ives prospered, while continuing to compose the music that ultimately brought him recognition as one of America's first composers of note. In effect, he had two jobs. One was intrinsically interesting to him, but made no money. The other wasn't particularly interesting, but very lucrative.
"Opportunists" are often depicted as unscrupulous people with few or no morals. But when seeking honest, well-paying work, opportunism can be an excellent idea.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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