This is commencement week at LSU. Young people around campus are busy planning their graduation blowouts, and realizing that they should have been looking for a job already.
The last time I cared about who was speaking at commencement was my own graduation, but I am sure whoever it is this year will exhort the new graduates to “follow your passion.” I remember a news story published last year that centered around this universal commencement advice. One new graduate, concerned that he had not yet found his one true calling, sought advice from an economist about what to do. As our young protagonist pointed out, some people find their passion early in life, while others search for decades, or forever. (Spoiler alert: this is another area where economists were sure they could provide an answer, but in the end were as clueless as the rest of us.)
Working with first rate researchers, I am quite familiar with people who found their calling at an early age. Most of my colleagues were firmly on their current career path before they graduated high school. I was a member of that other group. I drifted in and out of institutions of higher learning and through several careers, trying to find my one true calling, the thing that would motivate me to realize the high potential I had always been told that I possessed. Each attempt eventually ended with me bored and disillusioned, and I grew increasingly pessimistic that I would ever find my intended vocation.
It was a series of personal setbacks that finally turned things around for me. Unemployed and back in school, I found myself too busy trying to survive to worry about my passion. I focused my efforts on accomplishing each my new objective, and solving problems new and old. I had no time for self-absorption. I was content with the satisfaction that came with learning something new, acquiring a new skill, or making a new friend. I learned to enjoy my own company, and to appreciate the days as they passed.
Along the way, I fell in love with computer science. I realized that my passion had always been learning new things, understanding how the world works, and thinking hard, and CS is a perfect fit. Twenty-five years later, I am still excited to come to work every day. I don’t wish to imply that I would not have cared for computer science if had not struggled, but I think that focusing on what I have and enjoying who I am, rather than what I wish I had or who I would rather be, has helped me to stay committed and content with my chosen path. Corny, I know, but no worse than “follow your passion.”