What Kind of Career Advice Should We Give Our Students?

My second cousin will soon graduate with a degree in graphic design. Yet his heart isn’t in his major—it’s in stand-up comedy. He first majored in communications, found that “boring,” contemplated a theatre major, and finally settled on graphic design. His parents supported the graphic design choice. It seems like an employable option.

He arrived at college very knowledgeable about comedians. He’d read biographies and autobiographies, listened many times over to the routines of his favorites, and could talk at length about what made a particular comedian great. All through college he’s worked on his routines, writing new ones, and revising the old ones. In conversations and emails, he plays with language and works hard to make you laugh.

Comedy is his passion, and he’s become pretty good at stand up. He no longer uses notes or freezes in front of an audience. He’s found his way to a kind of cerebral humor that is funny for the way it flies from one unexpected image to the next. His jokes don’t always engender big laughs because they take time to figure out, and his delivery is sometimes too fast for his content. He hasn’t arrived, but he certainly has potential.

But as I sit across the table from him in a funky restaurant, I hear myself talking about the perils of following this dream. “You’re going to have to find a day job and keep it.” “You’re probably going to be poor for a long time.” “You need to have your head on straight—stand-up comedy is done in the presence of alcohol, for sure, and perhaps drugs as well.” “Yes, you need to be in a big city, but it expensive to live there. Try for a city with good public transportation.” During my steady stream of advice, he’s enormously polite, listening intently, and nodding appropriately, but does he really understand how hard it’s going to be?

I drive home after seeing his latest routine delivered to an audience of about 20 people (mostly other would-be comedians) in a dark, dingy lounge with an unpleasant odor. As I’m driving, I think about teachers as mentors, guides, and coaches. And I wonder how much responsibility we have to offer guidance and how we find our way to good advice. Are all passions worth pursuing? Will my cousin make it big? Will he even make a living at it? Will he have to give up his dream and settle for something other than what he loves?

It’s hard to know what advice to offer when someone’s pursuing a passion that’s fraught with risk. But I’ve also looked into the faces of lots of students in college with no passion at all. I advised them in my office: “What would you like to do?” “Accounting.” It’s a one word answer. “Why?” “I can get a good job.” “But will you like doing accounting every day of your life?” “I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.” Should I try to shake out that complacency? Wait-and-see-attitudes don’t usually deliver lives lived with excitement and purpose.

Then there were those students whose motivation was not for what they loved, but what they thought they wanted—job security, good benefits, and a decent salary. Daily we encounter people who made the choice to go with these types of secure jobs. Very often they’re bored, do their job poorly, and work with no sense of purpose or joy. Didn’t they need a teacher who challenged that motivation and helped them uncover alternatives?

We stand with students at those times and places when they make decisions that set the course of their lives. We once were in their shoes, and many of us can remember a teacher who shared advice and insights that helped us see the path ahead more clearly. Usually we can see a bit farther down the road than our students or maybe we’ve been down a road that looks a lot like the one ahead of them. Do we tell them what we see? Do they need reminders that what we’re trying to get them to learn is something they need to know? Should we keep after them to use what they’ve learned and to practice their skills to the point of exhaustion? Should we tell them to follow their dreams, even those that require great effort and lots of luck?

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