As we are getting to the end of the academic year, speakers are lining up to give commencement addresses. The usual message goes something like this: “You’ve worked hard, you and your family have sacrificed, and now you go forward into the world. Follow your passion, follow your dream, and you’ll enter into the Magic Kingdom of total happiness.”
Well, the reality is very different. If we follow our passion, our dream, we may not be able to make a living. Coffee shops, tattered inner-city restaurants, and low-end supper clubs are filled with the writer, the painter, the actor, the pianist who have followed their dreams but yet are unable to put food on the table.
What would be more practical advice for the newly minted high school or college graduate?
Steve Jobs in his iconic Stanford commencement address dissected this important question. His advice: Stay hungry, stay foolish, but I would also add be realistic.
The answer was shared with me over a piano keyboard on a bitterly cold March evening. A gentleman in his late fifties had lived in our community through his early twenties but then left for college and ultimately earned a doctorate in a highly specialized area of quantum physics. I am not sure what that is, but it’s not something I have any interest in.
But what was of interest was the reason he returned to our town. His elderly parents were not doing well. And he returned to help them sort out the bewildering number of options for elder care—none of which were especially appealing. Because of my medical background, he asked if we could have a quick lunch. Being curious about his life, I agreed to do so.
Although we addressed his parents’ conundrum, I learned some important lessons from this gentleman. Once he completed his PhD, he was vigorously recruited by a number of universities and had a tenured position at a major Midwestern college. He had a guaranteed salary. A laboratory with hungry, aggressive postdoctoral students, an enviable publication portfolio. He was all set.
But like most of us, he was looking for a magical castle, a place where the grass was greener, and he was lured away by another organization. As is often the case, he was promised the moon and the stars. However, he frankly admitted that he really did not do his homework; the financial architecture of the organization folded; promises were broken; contracts were reevaluated. He was miserable.
So here we have the perfect storm. The end of the career of a highly credentialed professional with limited options, and the financial and emotional burdens of caring for elderly parents.
What I heard was this: No whining or complaining. With a factual, almost clinical review of mistakes he had made, he showed an acceptance of his role in this mess and his taking total responsibility for the fallout. There was no blame, just an acknowledgment that things did not turn out well, so he needed to open another door for plan B.
He matter of factly reviewed his options, the pros and the cons, not only for himself but also for his parents. There was an analytical dissection of where he was in life, and he was certainly facing the future with poise and dignity
What does this offer our new graduates?
Be alert. Be realistic. Understand the commitment to make the all-star team, to become the headliner, the award-winning performer.
Even if pursuing skills that may not pay off in terms of a paycheck, put in place an infrastructure both emotional and financial to put food on the table and pay the mortgage.
Have some understanding and insight into market and economic realities.
Edward T. Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, a cancer specialist, is the first Mayo Clinic doctor board certified in hospice and palliative medicine. His new book, Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions and Candid Answers, is about navigating those precious last days, at the bedside, and saying farewell with hope, love, and compassion.
In the glorious marble lobby of the soaring, sun-filled Gonda building on the campus of the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, sits a concert-quality grand piano. The diminutive figure in a black suit often found playing this magnificent instrument may often be Dr. Edward Creagan (Dr. Ed). These blog posts are written from his encounters with patients and others who are drawn to his music and compelled to tell their stories. He listens. He plays. And he writes stories about people others don’t take time to get to know.