A False Dichotomy: Following Money vs. Following Passion

Notes from a meeting with a student

“So, what’s next? What are you going to do with your life?” How are you going to earn money?”

As seniors conclude their 12th year of formal schooling, they’re being bombarded with the same questions we fielded years ago.

I remember struggling with these on the eve of my open house, where my parents’ friends were about to write me a check to help fund a trip through Europe. I felt a little guilty accepting money without having clear-cut answers to those questions.

As I’ve been talking to seniors about future plans these past few months, the same stark dichotomy has emerged; it’s one they’re getting from our culture, their peers, and well-meaning adults.

“Follow your passion.”

OR

“Follow the money.”

At first glance, the two camps seem to be clearly demarcated. On one side we have the right-brained, romantic “feelers.” On the other, the left-brained, logical “analyzers.”

The passionate folks argue: “What’s the point of a bunch of money if you hate what you do every day?” The logical folks: “What’s the point of doing something you love if you can’t pay your bills?”

So I have a student who is reluctant to major in film because it won’t make her any money, and a student who is opting out of college because he hasn’t found his passion yet.

I think the passion/money dichotomy is insufficient, if not harmful.

For those who will listen, I’ve tried to reframe the dilemma by asking three key questions:

1. What do you enjoy doing and/or learning about?

2. What are you good at?

3. What does your community or the world need?

I met with a sophomore this week who said she wanted to be a coroner (see image).

Her answers:

1. Crime shows, science, writing

2. Science, writing

3. Helping victims’ families after a tragic loss.

Of course, the engine behind all of this is a love of learning. The more we learn about a subject, the more we become passionate about it, the more our skills develop, and the more we understand how it can help our community or world.

For the student who wants to be a YouTuber, I would challenge them on that third question: Does the world need more YouTubers? For the student who wants to be a dentist because “dentists make a ton of money,” I would ask, “Are you passionate about looking into people’s mouths all day?” And for the student who wants to be a neurosurgeon, I would ask: “Do you enjoy school enough to go for another 13 years?”

Granted, many students are unable to answer all (if any) of these questions even by the time they’re seniors. And should we be surprised? Their brains still have at least another seven years before they’re fully developed.

But in my experience working with students, if they continually grapple with these questions (preferably with guidance from experienced adults), most of the time they end up exactly where they belong.