In 2014, I enrolled at the University of Kansas with a major in journalism. At the time, I was not sure if I wanted to major in journalism or English, but I was leaning toward English. When I expressed this to my academic adviser after my second week of classes, she advised me to take an entirely different route—something more “traditional” and “secure,” she said.
When she pushed further and asked what I would do with an English degree, I panicked. I was only 18; I didn’t know what I would do with a degree in English, but I knew I was interested in writing, literature and rhetoric. I thought, “Aren’t I in college to pursue something I like doing?”
Now, as I approach my graduation date in May and prepare to leave Columbia with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction, I am asked this question more than ever: “What are you going to do with that degree?”
It isn’t that I don’t get it—I do. It is hard to get a job that pays a livable wage nowadays, and the traditional jobs hiring that relate to English and creative writing often do not pay a lot. But it has never been about pay for me, and people often scoff when I say this.
While I understand it sometimes has to be about money, because many people have families to provide for and bills to pay, it is still worth critiquing the view the U.S. has on work and its direct correlation to fulfillment and meaning. If we must find our meaning in our work, we should try to pursue our passions.
The U.S. is obsessed with work. Even as other countries shorten their workweek, the U.S. pushes people to work more—creating a stressful and less pleasant way of life. According to an article from The Atlantic, the most advanced countries give new parents the right to paid leave, while the U.S. does not guarantee employees this right. Many employees in the U.S. also depend on their job for health insurance, while other countries’ citizens are guaranteed access regardless of their employment.
This raises the question: Should your job be your duty, or your passion? We live in a society where work often gives people meaning, and a common conversation topic is your job’s demanding work schedule and how little sleep you have been getting.
I have seen my own friends and colleagues talk about these things, stating they only slept three hours last night, or they had to stay up after an eight-hour work shift to finish an assignment. It is like there is a need to prove how hard you are working compared to the person next to you.
In an article for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson discusses the idea of “workism” or “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life purpose.” Thompson also says Americans’ conception of work has changed in the past century, “from jobs to careers to callings—from necessity to status to meaning.”
The shift from a job simply being a job to being a true calling makes sense, as people often introduce themselves as “an engineer,” “an editor” or “a nurse” before saying anything else about who they are. These types of introductions emphasize that meaning is often directly correlated to work in the U.S.
However, if someone derives meaning from their work, and their work is not something they are passionate about, it can lead to burnout and a potential lack of fulfillment.
Because people in the U.S. often find meaning in their work, and this can be difficult to escape, it is paramount to follow your passions and put yourself on a career path worth working toward. It is easy to fall into the trap of putting work at the forefront of who you are, but if you have the opportunity to follow your passion, it really is a true piece of who you are.
For me, this means focusing on writing creatively to express myself, editing critically to expand my understanding of writing and closely reading other works to grow as a writer.
When I think back to my interaction with the academic adviser at KU, I wonder what would have happened if she had convinced me to switch to a degree in business, or marketing, or engineering. I would not be where I am today—writing a collection of essays for my graduate thesis, interviewing authors and filmmakers for the Chronicle or hunting for jobs related to editing and writing.
I would not feel like my work is truly a part of who I am—and I wouldn’t want to claim it as my life’s purpose.
It is true that it can be scary to follow your passion, and it may take a lot of work, but it is worth it to do what you love, as cheesy as it may sound. If you are doing what you love, it feels less like work and a little more like play.
If we can’t completely change the relationship the U.S. has with work, we can at least truly say our work is also our passion.