In countless commencement speeches at high schools and colleges in the coming weeks, graduates will be advised to chase their dreams, pursue their passions and settle for nothing less. That is terrible advice.
Comedian and TV host Stephen Colbert offered wiser counsel during a graduation speech at his alma mater, Northwestern University, a few years ago. Recalling that he once aspired to perform Shakespeare in the street while living in a barren loft apartment, he said he has no regrets that things turned out differently.
"If we'd all stuck with our first dream," noted Colbert, "the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses."
Second or third dreams — the ones that college freshmen bring to campus — are seldom much better. In some cases, this is obvious to most everyone except the dreamer: the pre-med student who wants to cure cancer but falls asleep in his biochem class; the aspiring diva who ignores her C in music (as well as her A in physics).
But even when an 18- or 22-year-old's passion for a particular vocation is grounded in impressive achievements and serious reflection, it's like other relationships at that age. To give up immediately might be a mistake, but wedding oneself to it is a bigger mistake still. Better to stay open to new ideas and career possibilities.
One of us was editor of his high school newspaper, president of a regional association for aspiring journalists and founder of a national newsmagazine before arriving at college as a journalism major. By his junior year, he was well on his way to his dream career when a sociology professor recognized that he had other interests and talents as well. After a series of conversations with the professor and enjoying several courses outside his major, he decided to attend graduate school in sociology.
The other one of us entered college after an educational journey that at best could be described as unfocused and uneventful. But after sitting in two poetry classes with a brilliant teacher who made the subject seem to be the most important thing in the world, he decided that he wanted to become, of all things, a professor.
After strongly considering graduate school in art history, his love of public policy brought him at the last minute to economics.
Even in graduate school — let alone college — neither of us imagined ending up in our current positions. Who dreams of becoming a college president? But after many years as full-time teachers and researchers, compelling opportunities presented themselves and we were attracted to what some faculty members call the dark side, the world of university administration.
College students never consider many potentially rewarding vocations, either because they're not glamorous enough to draw their attention, or because they do not yet exist. Any would-be Steve Jobs would be well advised to recall that in 1972, when Jobs graduated from high school, no one aspired to head a company that makes pocket telephones that connect to something called an Internet.
Young people should also take note of Jobs' oft-cited remark that had he not sat in on a calligraphy course in college, the Mac would not have its extraordinary typefaces. A single-minded focus on a particular profession during college might increase your odds of a home run in the first-job market or the graduate school admissions game, but it reduces your ability to respond to the many curveballs thrown at you over the course of your working and personal life.
Soon-to-be graduates who have no idea what they want to be when they grow up need not fret. And those who think they know their life plan at the age of 22 would be well advised to recognize that they are still developing as human beings and that their visions about what would make for a satisfying life might soon be very different than what they imagine today.
A word for parents who find themselves in bleachers listening to bromides about following one's dreams: You didn't let your babies grow up to be cowboys. Why would you want their latest ambition to be their last?
Barry Glassner is president and professor of sociology at Lewis & Clark College. Morton Schapiro is president and professor of economics at Northwestern University.
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