In my conversations with students about their career aspirations – and I’ve had a lot of those, over the years! – I often hear them taking one of two approaches to career planning.
The first is goal-driven. These students decide where they want to end up and are determined to do whatever it takes to get there. (“I want to be a vet, so even though labs aren’t my favorite thing I’ll take all the required courses and then some.”) The second is more intrinsically-motivated. These students do what they love and trust that a rewarding career will emerge from their choices. (“Nothing could be more fun than mastering four different languages, and there are lots of interesting things multilingual people can do.”)
I am and always have been one of the second kind. I see an opportunity to do something interesting and rewarding, something that wakes me up intellectually and challenges me personally, and it’s what I want to do! I never worried too much about where my professional choices would lead me; I always trusted that they would take me someplace fascinating and useful.
That’s a long way of saying I never set the explicit goal of becoming a college president. I just followed my interests and enthusiasms down a path that led me here. Naturally, it wasn’t the conventional, linear path – my experiences in consortial organizations, technology initiatives, and not-for-profit entrepreneurship are unusual ones for a college president to have had – but I had great experiences at every stage and wouldn’t trade what I learned along the way for anything.
To a person who takes a more goal-driven approach, this follow-your-bliss message can seem reckless and impractical, I know. And in fact, the two approaches aren’t really incompatible: it’s certainly possible to think both about what you love and feel passionate about and about where you hope to end up in your career. But I always want students to know that if they leave the love and passion out of the equation altogether they’ll be missing out on what makes work – and life – most satisfying.
Not every aspect of my work as a college president is delightful. There are difficult decisions to be made, hard choices to be faced, painful conflicts to be resolved. If I didn’t love it, believe in it, and find it so thoroughly engaging, I suspect I’d burn out pretty quickly. But doing what you love is a lot easier to sustain over the long haul than doing what you “have” to do.
If I could wish Sweet Briar undergraduates one thing, in terms of their careers, it is this: may they find the work that feeds their minds and hearts!
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