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Things We Need to Stop Telling Our Youth

I’m about six months away from turning 30, which prompted a recent interesting conversation with another nearly-thirty friend about certain expectations we each had had about the way our lives would look at 30. We both agreed that our expectations were severely skewed. And while I’m sure hubris and youthful ignorance are 80 percent to blame for our misconceptions, I think we both grew up being told things by our role models and mentors that were simply untrue. And so those things have inspired this post. Of course we want to motivate our youth to work hard and pursue their dreams, but I think there are a few things we just need to stop telling them. Here are four of those things:

1. You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.

People love to throw around this statement. It’s then usually followed by some one-in-a-million example: Oscar Pistarious has no legs but still competed as a runner in the 2012 Olympics; J.K. Rowling was living in a mouse-infested apartment and subsisting off of government assistance before becoming one of the richest women in the world; Liz Murray was homeless but still got into Harvard. The reason people cling to these examples is because they are so few and far between; that’s why they are great inspirational stories. And, of course, we should not discredit these people for the amazing things they have accomplished, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that all it takes is a little bit of hard work. There are a lot of hardworking people out there. If a little elbow grease was all it took, we’d have thousands of J.K. Rowlings and every valedictorian in the country would be rewarded with an admission offer to Harvard.

This waitress is about to be awarded a million dollars for all of her hard work!

The truth is that hard work is only one part of the equation and by telling our youth anything otherwise we are sending them mixed signals. People work hard every day, but still fall short of meeting their goals. If you don’t believe me, look at the Olympic trials and the number of people who dedicated their lives to a sport, never to see their Olympic dream come to fruition. Or let’s look at something a little more obtainable than becoming an Olympian: becoming a lawyer. In 2011, thousands of hopeful law school graduates walked the stage at their respective law schools to accept their diplomas. Nine months later, only 33.75% of those students were employed in full-time, legal positions. So is it really fair to say that the other 66.25% of these students were a bunch of slackers? What if they had just worked harder; would the results be different?

It is nice to think that if you work hard you can do anything, and we should certainly be encouraging our youth and young adults to put forth their best efforts, but let’s stop telling all the fish who can’t climb trees that maybe they should just work harder at it.

Goldie is going to have low self-esteem.

2. Do what you love and the money will follow.

The number of people who told me this with a straight face as I was growing up is astounding. If I wasn’t a naïve little kid, I would have thought to ask them,

“(1) do you love your job; and (2) did the money follow?”

Instead, my little kid brain absorbed this stupid piece of advice and then about six months after graduating from college, it resurfaced. As I was sitting at my shared cubicle, getting yelled at by some stranger who was annoyed that I had called him at work to discuss the benefits of attending my employer’s for-profit legal conferences, I realized that I most certainly did not love this job. In fact, I hated it.

Wait? Where’s my office? I thought I was special.

I used to fantasize about being lucky enough to slip on ice and break my leg on my way to work because that meant I would get to take the day off. I knew it was time to quit. And I did quit. And I found another job. And guess what? I didn’t really love that job either. But the source of the problem wasn’t the jobs. The source of the problem was me and my unrealistic expectations of what a job could do for me.

This is how your job should make you feel, right?

Jobs are not fun. If they were fun, you would have to pay to go to them. Let’s think about this logically.

  • If you want to ride rollercoasters at Disneyworld, you have to pay.
  • If Disneyworld wants you dress up as Mickey Mouse while little kids puke and pee all over you, they have to pay you.
  • If you want to get a relaxing skin exfoliating spa treatment, you have to pay.
  • If the spa wants you to scrape dead skin cells off of pasty old women, they have to pay you.

It’s just how it works. But for some unknown reason, we have been telling the youth of America that they can find happiness in their jobs. And then we turn around and wonder why everybody has five different advanced degrees. It’s not because my generation is a bunch of lazy Peter Pans, it’s because we’ve been told our entire lives that our careers will make us happy.

This exit will cost you $150,000, but don’t worry, the Dept. of Education will lend it to you.

So when we are not happy in our careers, instead of realizing that it’s because 98% of jobs suck, we think it’s because we are not in the right field, i.e.,  we haven’t found what we love. This is stupid. Let’s stop telling our kids this. Instead, let’s be a little more realistic with our advice. Little Johnny isn’t going to become an unmotivated slacker if every once in a while you tell him, “sometimes mommy’s job is boring, but she does it because she really likes getting to watch you play Little League football.”

And yes, I realize that just like there are really inspiring stories of people who have beat all odds to become successful, there are examples of really awesome jobs out there. And it’s cool if we all acknowledge that these jobs exist, but let’s not let our optimism bias cause us to make stupid decisions.

3. Everybody should get a college degree no matter what they want to do.

I know this is going to be a touchier subject, but I really think we need to stop telling every single high school student to go to college. My generation is frequently criticized for “expecting” jobs, but considering that we grew up being told we had to go to college to get one, is this result really all that surprising? Quite frankly, I think this is part of the reason why a lot of unemployed college graduates go on to get advanced degrees: we’ve been told our entire lives that education is the answer. If you follow the rules, you get rewarded…

This cat followed all the rules and is ready for his job now.

And this advice was just thrown at us with such reckless abandon:“it doesn’t matter what you major in, just go” we were told. “If you don’t go to college, the only thing you will be qualified to do is flip burgers,” our teachers warned. We were shown graphs and charts of our different earning potentials: “did you know college graduates will make [insert some high number] more than those with just a high school degree?” our guidance counselors asked.

This is actual letterhead you can buy.

Notice there is no mention of the cost of education on this chart.

And so we did. We all went to college. And maybe for some parts of the country this was actually good advice, but I grew up in Appalachia Ohio where the number of factory jobs far outweigh the number of office jobs. In fact, when I was in high school, my parents actually encouraged me to not go to college. They were mad at me for going because they thought it was a waste of money. And I was mad at them for feeling that way. I stayed mad at them for a long time, longer than they deserved. And now that I’ve had some time to reflect on things, I don’t think they are the “stupid hicks” that I so wrongly accused them of being.

They were realistic.

Don’t worry; I didn’t say these things to their face. And, yes, I was a bratty teenager.

They knew they couldn’t support me financially and to them, taking out loans for education seemed irresponsible when my dad could have easily found me a position with him at the Post Office, a decent government job with good benefits. But I was 18, so “decent” and “good benefits” weren’t things I cared about. My job, after all, was supposed to bring me happiness!

There is more to life than good benefits and I am going to find it!

So I went to college as did many of my classmates. And I watched a lot of my friends enter a continuous cycle of dropping out and then re-enrolling, taking them six or seven years to earn their associate’s degree in things like communications. I think it was hard for us because almost all of us were first generation college students. We all tried, but many of my classmates found themselves buried in debt, yet no more qualified for a job than they were when they graduated high school.

So is college worth it for everyone? No, it’s not. We need to be more realistic with our advice. If little Johnny hates school, well then just maybe more education isn’t the right recipe for his future success. I wish we could remove the stigma from opting out of college because, honestly, six years after earning my bachelor’s degree, I still can’t answer whether it was worth it for me. As I sit here making nine bucks an hour to work from home, “as-needed,” for a small medical malpractice firm, well that “decent” post-office job, with “good benefits” sounds pretty appealing to me right now.

4. Dance like nobody is watching.

This is bad advice. If you are in public, you should not dance like nobody is watching. People are watching and most of them have video recorders on their cell phones.

I danced like nobody was watching. Somebody was watching and they had Facebook.

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It’s Like 10,000 Spoons, When All You Need is Knife

So the bar is over and now it is time to find a real job. I have about fifteen resumes/cover letters floating out in the jobosphere so far and plan to just keep sending more everyday. Job searching is tough. I have been lucky in the past. I graduated from undergrad in 2006 when the economy was great. I think I took that for granted. About a month before graduating, I sent out about five resumes, got three interviews and then two job offers. It was easy and not because I was some great asset that companies couldn’t live without, but because times were good.  My first job paid $50,000. Granted, that was in New York City, but still, that’s not terrible, especially considering my goal today is just to get paid in money. Seriously, if an employer wants to pay me in sandwiches, thanks for the offer, but no thanks. I don’t care if they will even let me pick where we buy the sandwiches. I still say no deal.

The job market is rough and while my school has tried to help, some of their suggestions have been frustrating. For example, my career advisor sent me an email with an exciting opportunity to make $10,000/year working for Americorps. I understand that Americorps is a non-profit organization, but I just have a problem getting behind the idea of being poorer than the poor people I am helping. How is that helping anybody? If I can’t even afford to buy gas to get to work, then I am not very effective at my job. And when I explained to the career advisor that I simply cannot take another financial hit like that, she seemed legitimately surprised that I would turn down such a great opportunity. And to be fair, maybe if I were 22, it would be, but now that I am 29 with no 401k, no savings, and living off of spaghetti and butter, well that offer kind of sucks. It’s barely a step above sandwiches.

Even worse are the “opportunities” that I am pretty sure violate the law. For example, a professor sent our class the following email:

I just got the following note from a buddy of mine.

‘Do you have any students who may be looking to “clerk” for the remainder of the summer and that you would recommend?  The term “clerk” is a euphemism in this case for doing largely clerical or administrative work (e.g. closing binders, filing ) either free or for a fairly nominal charge but getting exposed to a legal environment and padding their resume.’

Let me know if you have any interest in following up the “clerk” position.

The professor who sent this is a great guy and actually helped me get the only interview I’ve had so far, and he also seems to appreciate how sucky this “clerk” offer is, but seriously, this is just so bad. I hate that the economy has become so bad that employers now feel like they don’t even need to pay for basic secretarial work. I think we all need to band together. If you need experience, fine, go work for free, but seriously, if you have paid your dues, it is time that we demand pay checks that are not coupons, that are not IOUs, that are not football/concert tickets, but that are for actual legitimate money. Why is that such a crazy concept? I can’t pay my cable bill by sending them a coupon for one free frappuccino at Starbucks.

Anyway, I am getting a little off-topic with my rant. I actually just wanted to share something that I think might actually be funny someday. Despite my whining, I am actually at least somewhat lucky when it comes to this job stuff. I was an EIC of one of the law journals and despite how sloppy this blog may be, I am (surprisingly) confident enough to say that I am a good editor. And other people seem to agree because two of my professors approached me about helping them research/draft/edit books that they are writing. I agreed to help with both of the projects until I find full-time work. The problem, unfortunately, is that when you work for a professor, you are working for the university and thus you have to work for the salary the university sets. So I am now Smiling Sparkler, J.D., now working part-time for eight bucks an hour. I think minimum wage is $7.70 here. But that is not the part that will be funny someday–that is the part that is just kind of a bummer.

The part that I find funny is this:  I met with one of the professors on Monday and the book I am helping to write is about, I kid you not, why getting a law degree is no longer worth it for most people. So yes, ladies and gentleman, for eight dollars an hour, I am using my legal education to help write a book discussing why law degrees no longer have value. The irony is not lost on me.

At least my school can count me as employed when they turn in their stats to the ABA!

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