Ignore the money and just follow your passions.
This is the career advice offered to students by some teachers today. It’s an appealing and romantic message, and these educators mean well.
What they mean is this. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into a professional track not of your choosing. Don’t enroll in a 5-year university program and take on the burden of student debt due to the dictates of society. Don’t enter the proverbial rat race of corporate America for some vague promises of security and stability. Just because your parents want you to become a doctor or lawyer doesn’t mean that’s the path for you. Instead, identify the areas that you feel most passionate about and work in those spaces.
I agree with all of those sentiments. And I agree that the most fulfilling work we can do as human beings is the work that doesn’t feel like work. The most fulfilling work is that which best aligns with our natural curiosity, competencies, and interests. This is work that adds value to the lives of others and energizes our own souls in that process.
An Economy of Opportunity
It should also be said here that I’m also quite in favour of no “job” at all — at least, not in the traditional sense of working for an employer. Though I’m not living entirely in this space myself, I’m a big admirer of entrepreneurship, self-employment, and creative work. Unlike some of my peers across K-12 education, I’ll actually defend and support a student’s ambition to adopt “professional YouTuber” as their career track of choice — keeping in mind the tremendous amount of hard work and sacrifice required to bring dreams of that sort to fruition. It’s the 21st century and a global internet economy, after all. The secure career jobs of yesteryear are vanishing in the wake of a rapidly evolving and responsive marketplace. Work is free for the taking and creating more than any time in history.
So yes: explore and develop natural passions and inclinations. It is precisely this ideology that is at the heart of some of the most exciting trends in education today, including inquiry-based and project-based learning. These are practices that produce deeper and more meaningful learning because students are freed to direct the focus of their own learning activities instead of merely following traditionally narrow parameters as prescribed by the teacher. Education is rightly becoming more and more about following curiosities and exploring natural interests — learning to learn instead of memorizing large bodies of content of very dubious long-term value.
What I’m not a fan of is the idea that as educators we should coach our students to completely ignore dollars. Because in a world of expenses, dollars matter. They just do.
As our young learners mature and progress through the system, I believe we owe it to them to offer them some frank advice about the financial implications of the work they choose to pursue. That’s a controversial suggestion in some circles, but I stand by it.
I graduated from university in 2001. Fresh-eyed and full of ideals, I signed my first contract at an independent school in an urban area of a large city. Tuition was intentionally low so that lower class families could attend, and as a result, my first salary was a whopping $24,000.
The mission and vision of the school shaped its culture, its tuition, and therefore its salaries, and I was completely on board. But the reality was that after deductions, my bi-weekly paychecks ran in the mid-$800s. Working hard into the evenings as a rookie teacher, I was hard-pressed just to spend within my means — let alone pay off my $12,000 of car debt or start to put any savings away. I worked at that school for the first six years of my teaching career, and although my salary grew incrementally each year, the marginal increases weren’t significant enough to alter my financial picture very much.
In today’s world of rising housing costs, gas costs, and grocery costs, I would be a little concerned if one of my two stepsons took a job paying $24,000 annually at 21 years old. That’s just not the kind of income that will allow them to save up to buy a car, a ring, a wedding, a property, provide for children, or attempt any number of other rites of adulthood that we might hope for them in terms of building a future for themselves and their families.
If we’re being honest, $24,000 a year is much closer to a recipe for living cheque to cheque and serving the masters of Visa and MasterCard. That’s not an automatic scenario, by any means — disciplined financial stewardship should happen at any income level. But incomes below the poverty line trend in the direction of very challenging financial realities.
Money Isn’t Everything
Don’t hear me extolling the glories of money too highly here. Money is simply a medium of exchange. It doesn’t have the power to produce happiness — and happiness can certainly be found outside of the American Dream. Money doesn’t have the power to create passion for work activities where that passion didn’t exist before. But it does have the power to create options. To reject that reality is intellectual laziness.
Free to Chart Their Own Course
Ultimately, my stepsons will still be free to choose their own career tracks. And their parents won’t be pressuring them in any one direction. The reality is that one of them may choose to work for an NGO that builds sewer systems in Haiti, with a subsistence income similar to my first teaching salary. My wife and I wouldn’t shut that down — we’d be genuinely proud of their attitude of service and their contributions to our world.
A Call for Some Coaching
What I do intend to do is simply coach them along the journey. Help them to think about the implications of their work and career choices. Recognize that the financial decisions that they make in their 20s will reverberate in some ways for the rest of their lives.
Here’s the summary of my message — my advice to my stepsons and any high school student who will listen. Dream big dreams for your life. Yes, explore and develop your creative passions. Find fulfilling work.
But in that process, keep an eye on the dollars. Because dollars do matter.