By: Victoria G. Smith
Some years ago, when I was a part-time college instructor at the largest community college in Iowa, the sight of my young adult students, many of them fresh out of high school, arriving at our first class session looking indifferent, bored, stressed, or even depressed greatly disturbed me. I wondered why, with all their youth, health, and beauty—indeed, their whole life still ahead of them in the great United States of America, a country for which many immigrants and refugees risked death to reach—they looked so miserable.
Thus, I did all I could to make our classes both entertaining and challenging. I strove to give them a first class university experience—just as I’d benefited from the excellent universities (from the Philippines and United States) I’d attended, from which I received my three graduate and post-graduate degrees. I worked very hard at this such that a fellow instructor, witnessing it, appeared to have felt threatened enough to tell me to stop going beyond what our pay required of us. But I couldn’t help myself. What my fellow teacher failed to appreciate was the non-monetary compensation I received from doing what I did. When the term ended, I received the reward I desired most of all, which was not so much the five-star instructor rating most of my students gave me, but seeing how some of them changed into engaged human beings, at least semi-ready and somewhat excited for what’s next in their lives.
Many who know me might say I’m a naturally passionate person, and perhaps they are right. The sight of a defeated young person especially haunts me, because I think of what I could still achieve if only I were that young again! I feel sorry for the girl or boy, compelled to understand what leads young people to such states of desperation. Thus, I’ve given this much thought and reflection. Part of the problem, I think, is that the youth have so many life choices now, especially in a first world country like the United States. This may sound surprising, as conventional wisdom suggests that the more choices we have, the more fulfilling our lives would be, and therefore the happier we must be. On the contrary, recent studies suggest that our condition as members of a contemporary, wealthy, democratic society who have to navigate through countless choices to ensure we’re making the “right choice”—whether this be in terms of professions, vocations, or products—actually contributes to us being miserable. I understand this.
I remember my first visit to a grocery store when I immigrated to America. I stood frozen, stalled mid-aisle, confounded by the impossible number and variety of fresh produce and packaged products that presented themselves to me. I didn’t know what to choose! This dilemma was exacerbated by two faults of mine: I was part lazy and part afraid. Lazy, because I didn’t want to have to read the product descriptions and warnings in order to choose properly. Afraid, because I was afraid of making mistakes in my purchases. To this day, I dislike grocery shopping. Lucky for me my husband doesn’t mind it at all. I am amused at how he seems to find a good excuse to drive to the nearest grocery store almost everyday. I suspect he likes hunting the daily bargains. Ha! Men and hunting—what more need I say? But back to mistakes. That’s the key to the riddle of our desperate youths. If I was afraid to make simple mistakes in my choice of goods while grocery shopping, how much more daunting is it for young people to have to make crucial decisions about career and life paths? Oh, the burden of having to decide at their tender teenage years what they want to do or become for the rest of their lives—long before their brains and personalities are fully developed! And add to that the hefty burden of paying for a college education these days. There is something to be said about the merits of providing free public college education to those who want and deserve it.
Wherever there are human problems, there abound self-help gurus who claim to have the answer. And the answer they came up with for the problem of making choices when there are too many choices? Find your passion. Passion! Hmph. There should be a rule against further abuse of this word. I suspect some people call what they do as their “passion” to glamorize it and make it sound more important or mysterious than it really is. What insufferable pretentiousness! And sometimes, what others call passion is in fact an unhealthy obsession that comes from a compulsion to fill in some insatiable need or emptiness in their lives. Yet with all their so-called passion, they remain incomplete human beings.
I actually feel some anger now whenever I hear some adult preach to the young about “finding one’s passion” in order to become successful in life. Why? Because above all, I think it’s cruel to mislead the young to think that unless they are passionate in what they’re doing, they will never be successful— in addition to imposing the unnecessary burden on them to find a passion. But what if they never find one? What if they’re perfectly content to be mildly interested in their occupation or vocation, enough to earn a modest living? Does that mean they’re failures? I bet this is exactly what most young people fear—to feel or be perceived as failures. Thus the misery, desperation, depression. And the tragedy! Because this so-called recipe for success is nothing more than another false product someone sold us that we unwittingly bought hook, line and sinker because it sounded good—without us actually having read the product details. For if we are to examine what really goes on in “finding one’s passion”, we’ll discover it’s less of an absolute ideal than the pragmatic compromise it truly is. Most successes in life are achieved through trial and error. Who says that a course of action or study or life direction chosen when one was young couldn’t be changed later, as circumstances or one’s desires required? Nothing in life is written in stone. Nothing—unless we will it. Life indeed is what we make it, with a little help from luck.
“Now,” some of you might protest, “aren’t you being pretentious yourself when you announced not too long ago how writing was your passion?” Yes. Mea culpa. I admit I too I fell into that trap of trying to delude myself and others that I’m one of the lucky ones who’s found my passion and living it. Although perhaps that’s true now, it’s also true that despite my passionate personality, nothing I ever did in my life happened or became successful because I was instantly passionate about it. Under whatever circumstances I found myself in, I simply proceeded to do what I had guessed (and yes, this is another real life secret: much of life is guesswork!) I might like doing more than other activities or tasks that were available to me at the time, discovered I was good at doing one thing versus another, which added to the pleasure I experienced in doing such activity or task, which in turn inspired me to continue engaging in it, until I practiced it often enough that I had achieved some mastery of it, which in the end led to my success in such occupation. That’s it—that’s all it really is! Some people might call this finding my passion. I simply call it doing what I like. Everyone, in reality, is largely clueless and making things up as he or she trudges along this road called life. But that’s the key to living a joyful, creative life—just making things up. It doesn’t matter what you do—just do it if you like it, and see what happens. All the greatest artists will attest to this creative process. I consider myself passionate only in one thing: doing my best in whatever I choose to do, whether I like it or not—meaning, whether I’m doing it for pleasure or out of duty or necessity. My husband, having retired from an Information Technology (IT) career a few years ago, always said it was no more than a job that fortunately allowed him to provide a comfortable life for his family. But he was still considered a great success by many of his superiors, peers, and subordinates, and he’s got a Top 100 CIO Award to show for it. I believe his success also came from giving nothing less than his best to whatever project he was involved in. He didn’t need IT to be his passion to be successful. He only needed to be good at it, and it helped that he proved better at it than other people.
I have no doubt that some successful individuals really do feel passionate about what they do, which inspired them to become better at doing it than other people were, which ultimately led to their success and happiness. They’re lucky that way. But for most of us, we have to work extra hard to “get lucky”, which means trying to just survive the work day in order to get us through to the evening or weekend when we could finally do what we like better than our day jobs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with living this way. Many people live lives of relative mediocrity in jobs they merely tolerate in order to keep body and soul together, so that perhaps someday they can finally do what they like doing more often than what they don’t like. Is this happiness? Is this success? I would ask instead: Did it facilitate a life that enabled them to enjoy loving and being loved? Because if it did, then I call that a life well lived. That, to me, is the definition of success.
Happiness, furthermore, isn’t a static thing. It’s fluid. Like water, it runs into all aspects of our life. One may feel happy now, but not so next day. Does that mean you’re not a happy person? No. Because happiness is a quality or state of being, not an emotion. You can’t take the joy out of another person unless that person permits it. You might make that person feel sad by doing things to hurt that person in separate, particular moments. But that person will rise above them because his or her state of being belongs to him or her alone. That’s why we say a person’s dignity can’t be taken away by anyone unless the subject of the attack agrees it’s been taken from him or her. One could read Victor E. Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search For Meaning”, further on this.
If we examine humanity’s problems, we might trace many of them to our relentless pursuit of the absolute—absolute answers in black and white that are easy to preach, yet fall apart upon the first grays in the cloudy horizons of life. Why settle for black and white in a colorful world? I’m reminded of what the young main character in one of Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories stated: “I don’t need to find the meaning of life. I only want to experience it.” And there it is, young people—the secret of a happy, successful life! So simple, it eludes many of us. Just live your life the best way you can, giving it the best you have, while striving simply to love and be loved in return. Yep— just like the old Nat King Cole song goes. And what a newer song sings: Don’t worry; be happy!
(All rights reserved. Copyright ©2019 by Victoria G. Smith. For updates on her author events & publications, go to VictoriaGSmith. com. “Like” her on Facebook at Author Victoria G. Smith. “Follow” her on Twitter @AuthorVGSmith)