At the end of my undergraduate degree, I faced a lot of choices as to which graduate programs I wanted to pursue after earning my BA in English. I had many academic passions: English literature, composition, theory, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and, for a brief moment, I even considered pursuing graduate study in computer science. Confronted with the necessity of deciding on my future education, I sought the advice of my professors.
One of my professors, whom I admired a great deal, gave me the advice that his old professor gave him: “Find what you love, and then do something else.” After seeing the confused look on my face, he explained that by the time someone finishes their graduate studies, they will have committed a great deal of time and an exhausting amount of energy to those fields. Many people who make it through their graduate programs find that they have a dispassionate connection to their field. What my professor was telling me was that if I wanted to continue to love what I love, then I shouldn’t put it through the rigors of academic studies.
Those words stuck with me for a few reasons. First, they caused me to ask myself: what did I love to do? I focused on literature and composition as an undergraduate, but were those really my passions? At that time, I didn’t think so. But as I neared graduation, I didn’t feel qualified to pursue advanced degrees in fields other than literature or composition. I had put a lot of energy into molding myself into an English major. You know what I mean. I was an over-caffeinated student, reading books in awkward positions in comfortable chairs in public spaces, probably with headphones in my ears. The bags full of books over my shoulders were as heavy as the bags under my eyes, full of lofty dreams.
My professor’s advice to do something other than what I loved also caused me to do some extrospection regarding higher education. If my professor’s advice was to do something other than what I loved, then the implication was that my professor spent the entirety of his academic career working on ideas that he did not love. Was that true for all of my professors? Was the typical professor scrambling between teaching classes to find research time to write about topics they did not love? If so, was I prepared to do the same? Did I want to dedicate a large portion of my life to pursuing ideas that were secondary to what I primarily loved? At the time, I wasn’t sure that I could dedicate time to pursuing anything that I didn’t love.
The flip side of my professor’s advice is often spoken as an imperative platitude to young people trying to decide what career they should pursue: you should make your passion into a career. Find what you love, and then find a way to make money doing it. Do you like doodling? Go into graphic design! Do you like playing PC games? Learn to code! Do you like to read? Work in publishing! This outlook on productivity is why we see so many small Etsy shops from people with passions for hand-made crafts. I have even fallen into this trap myself. I told my wife, who is an expert on crafting objects using only recycled material, to sell her crafts online. She, wiser than me (as is often the case), told me, “No, this is just for fun.”
There is this strange mentality in Western culture that perpetuates the belief that if a hobby does not make money, then the time spent has no value. Value has a double meaning here. First, in a capitalistic way, value means how much our time—as well as the objects produced during that time—is worth. This mentality has perpetuated our society’s push for longer hours of production in which we produce vague things of value and find ourselves with little leisure time to enjoy other things of value. The result is, from my observation, that many people forgo doing what makes them happy.
Value also has a more personal meaning when it refers to those hobbies or passions that are valuable to a person outside of making money. This alternative conception of value takes into consideration aspects that modern neoliberal capitalism does not: a person’s happiness and well-being. Why can’t one simply doodle to relieve stress? Play PC games for fun? Read fiction to unwind? We often overlook the personal value of hobbies in favor of their monetary value. We have the hope that someone else will somehow value our passions as much as we do—that they will pay us for the things that we love to make or the time we love to spend making them. But that mentality can be toxic to a person’s health; if a person finds that their passion for crafting handmade lanterns is not valued by others, then the crafter may feel discouraged to continue the hobby, neglecting the very reasons they started the hobby in the first place. Coming to realize this trend in our society, I then turned back to my own question of what degree and focus of study I should do after graduating.
I realized that, ideally, something a person loves could—and should—have both types of value. Doing what you love could be a healthy way for you to pursue your own happiness, and others might see the value of it enough to pay for it. I would imagine, however, that this is rare, and that the stories of self-made millionaires who found a way to monetize their hobbies are nothing more than the perpetuation of survivor-bias narratives. However, I have resolved myself to attempt to apply both types of value to what I am passionate about: reading and writing. Perhaps I will succeed. Perhaps I will not, and if I fail to make a living by reading and writing, I will remember that I love doing them for their own—and my own—sake.
Shane Black is an MA candidate in English Literature at Wright State University.