Balance Pragmatism and Passion

Five Things Teens and Parents Should Know about College Admissions: Part 3

by | May 11, 2017

Find a Balance Between Pragmatism and Passion

“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on.”

– Steve Jobs

It’s impossible to write an article disagreeing with Steve Jobs, so I won’t even try. Of course he’s right that the only way to do great work is to love what you do. Every great contribution to music, art, science, mathematics, technology, or the ongoing evolution of humankind was made by someone for whom it wasn’t “just a job,” but a passion they were fiercely inspired to. But it’s also an important lesson that for many of us, the thing we’re passionate about is a life with a meaning beyond our own satisfaction, and the key to find that is to balance pragmatism and passion.

The most important lesson from Jobs’ quote often gets forgotten. “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.” That implies we have the time to keep looking while doing something that isn’t “right” yet. And it’s hard to “keep looking” when you’re overwhelmed by hunger, by the fear of not making rent, or by the costs of childcare and heat.

For teens starting out in life after high school, remember this. Your first gig after college doesn’t have to be your final “true passion,” but it does have to pay the bills so you can keep searching for that passion. Very few people find their true calling first time out. So, as hard as this can be to think about when you’re a teen, find a way to balance pragmatism and passion in your choice of college and major. And if you’re a parent helping a child through the process, give your teen the tools to consider how they can balance these two sometimes competing goals.

Tools to Help Your Teen Balance Pragmatism and Passion

  • First, help them realize that “what they love” may turn out to be having a stable household where your children can grow and thrive, where your family is happy, and where they are materially comfortable. Starting your college search with the thought that it can provide a stable career is not “settling.” For many people, their greatest passion is making sure their loved ones are doing ok.
  • Taking an interests test can be a great way to discover what a teen’s greatest passion is. Many people are most motivated by doing work that brings social good, or by an investigative passion. And that in turn can help them find ways both to express themselves and build a financially stable life. For example, if you love painting, you can make a much better living doing commercial art than fine art. The Hamilton Project has some great data on earnings by major.
  • Factor costs and earnings into your college search. The costs, and potential earnings of different universities can vary widely. Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce analyzed government data and adjusted it for student preparation and majors, so you can know exactly how much a college will contribute to your earnings. College search tools like LifeLaunchr’s factor this data, and college cost data, into the search algorithm, so parents and teens can make sure a student doesn’t graduate with huge student loan debts. This doesn’t have to be the only tool in your college search, but it can help prioritize among competing choices.

Finding meaning in life is critical to all of us. But meaning comes in many shapes. Finding your own unique balance between pragmatism and passion is the key to finding it. As Gordon Marino, Professor of Philosophy at St. Olaf College, put it:

“The universally recognized paragons of humanity — the Nelson Mandelas, Dietrich Bonhoeffers and Martin Luther Kings — did not organize their lives around self-fulfillment and bucket lists. They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning. They did — like my father and some of those kids from town — what they felt they had to do.”

This article is part three of a five-part series. Part four is at this link.


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Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan

Venkates Swaminathan (Swami) is the founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, the world's first virtual college admissions coaching platform, and a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Swami has been an executive in the education and technology industries for over 25 years. He has an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois, and a B.Tech in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He is the father of a child in college, and in his spare time, he is a jazz and Indian classical singer and pianist.

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