Doing what makes you happy

November 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

This week, Robert and I spent Thanksgiving with my family. We had an amazing time with them–eating way too much food, window shopping in the helter-skelter that is Black Friday, and watching Harry Potter 7: Part One. I am entirely grateful to my parents for having us in their home for five days, and I’m thrilled that we were able to do it at all. We haven’t been back to my parents’ home in several months (probably March or April…I can’t remember exactly), and they don’t live terribly far away. Now that the regular college football season has finished, and our weekends can be ours again, I’m hoping we’ll be able to take advantage of the proximity to my parents and visit them more frequently.

So, in addition to generally having a great time with my parents (to include resting until our depleted little batteries were fully recharged), we had some really interesting conversations. At one time during one of the conversations, my mom, ten years shy of when she plans to retire, gave us rookies a piece of hard-won advice: “You should do what makes you happy. When you have to commute to work for two hours every day and wake up at 3 in the morning, you want to do something that makes that worthwhile.” I have always agreed with this sentiment, encouraging my own students to (in the wise words of the late great Joseph Campbell) “follow your bliss.” My students are choosing degree paths that will eventually lead them to the careers they’ll probably keep for the rest of their lives–it is not worth the decades of misery to major in what someone else suggests or might even pressure one to pursue. That has always been my stance. I guess it’s fairly obvious that I was raised that way.

But since my mom made this statement, I’ve found myself ruminating on it. And here’s what I’ve come to: what makes me happy seems capricious. All my life, since I could speak, I’ve put myself in the position of educator. At times bossy, at other times defensive, and still at other times dreadfully annoying, I have still remained the instructive one. So, I decided that surely that’s what makes me happy. Clearly I enjoy telling people what to do, what to think, what to feel–isn’t that what teachers do? (I hope it’s obvious that this question is made in sarcasm.) I am taking steps to making a career out of it. I’ve learned to hone the skill, to research the facts and improve my ethos, to change my tone during times of instruction. According to six years’ worth of evaluations, my students consistently describe me as energetic, passionate, and enthusiastic. I take these to be signs that I’ve at least learned to curb my bossiness, defensiveness, and annoyance. At least, I hope that’s what those remarks mean.

Back to the topic at hand. As I said, what I had at an early age decided is my happiness (teaching people interesting things I’ve learned) has started to shift. If teaching is what makes me happy, I’ve been having a hell of a time at it in the past several months. There are many contributors to this problem, not the least of which have been truly arrogant, aggressive, and unethical students. I have devolved to the point now that I dread walking into the classroom–I have to take several deep breaths to steel my nerves and remind myself that I am the knowledgeable authority. I can feel my blood pressure rise when lesson planning and grading–both activities take much longer than they should and are sources of extreme stress. I have a pit in my stomach nearly every waking minute of every day, and it grows more unbearable when I think about class.

While my mom’s statement cycles through my thoughts, I am left wondering what happens when one has pursued what makes one happy but that source of happiness fails to produce anymore. Do we shift gears? Move on to the next source of happiness? I don’t know. I truly don’t know what I would do if not teaching. I’m at the final stages of a doctoral program in English literature; it seems far too late to shift gears now. (And, of course, I am not going to stall out and leave now–not to worry.) What comes after happiness? This question has haunted me for a few weeks, and especially in the past couple of days.

Here’s what I’ve concluded. When you have done what makes you happy and it suddenly fails to do so any more, then you must find happiness in what you’re doing. Obviously every career presents its challenges: insufferable people to interact with, unachievable demands from higher-ups, threats of unemployment from abstract fears. I don’t think that when my mom encourages us to do what makes us happy that she is implying eternal and constant happiness in that career path. That would actually go against her reasonable nature. I think what I failed to hear all these years is the rest of the thought: do what makes you happy, and find happiness in what you do.

The second half of that statement is extremely difficult to execute. It is so much easier, for instance, to focus on the angry, aggressive, and argumentative students than it is to focus on the eager, interested, and curious students. As Robert is so fond of reminding me: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Students who complain and shake their fists are much more likely to require my attention than the ones who quietly accomplish their assigned work.

I have to try, though, because it really is too late for me to shift gears. I have no idea what I would shift to anyway. I have to make this career path work, and I have to create my own happiness within this field at all costs.

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