Labor Day Weekend in Boston means two things. Most working people with the day off flee, emptying the streets, taking to the highways, and soaking up the long weekend somewhere outside city environs, preferably with ocean or mountains and without discarded couches littering the sidewalks. Meanwhile, most students from the city’s many universities (and recent grads from schools everwhere) are moving in, bloating the streets with their moving trucks and subjecting their dads to too many flights of stairs. (A retroactive and eternal thank you to my own father who did this countless times, including when he hoisted a table through a window to fit into a tiny Cambridge apartment, after cutting my box spring in half so that we could maneuver it up the stairway and reassemble it once in my new room. One could say I learned a thing or two about patience and problem-solving from that guy).
This year, I fell into neither category. I’m a long way from college, and I just moved this winter and don’t plan to do it again anytime soon. I no longer subject Dad to being Macgyver on moving days; I spring for movers. I also labored on Labor Day, teaching yoga to a packed house of enthusiastic, sweaty, come-and-get-me-September yogis at Inner Strength Studio. I planned for a video shoot with Runner’s World magazine this weekend. I did a little writing.
Yet, the momentum around me got me thinking about labor and the best and worse advice I got about work while in college. Two key moments come to mind, both of which occurred while I was choosing my major. English.
And I’d choose the same way if I were to do it all over again. Despite getting advice like the following, from the father of a young girl I tutored regularly as a side job. I remember the scene in their impressive Virginia home well. The older son was on the verge of an exciting milestone: his bar mitzvah, and the living room in which I helped his younger sister with reading and writing was overrun by elaborate party favors. I wouldn’t see this many gift bags again until my time as a marketing executive at Boston magazine, while planning massive events like its annual Best of Boston party.
“You have to think about the things you want to have and figure out the job you can do to get those things.”
At this, he motioned around the beautiful home at the things his work had materialized. I didn’t argue. He made a valid point. It was a beautiful home, and they were a lovely family. They seemed happy. If you want a nice home, you have to work to get it. This much I knew, and it’s in my DNA to work hard anyway. But I disagreed with other aspects of his statement. The pursuit of things wasn’t going to inspire me to study subjects about which I didn’t care or in which I didn’t excel. And who’s to say that once I got these things, I’d be happy?
Thank you, sir. Have a wonderful time at the bar mitvah. Little Sally, nail that spelling test, girlfriend.
Needless to say, this was the worst advice I ever got. The best came from my friend, Doc, one year behind me in school but infinitely wiser in many ways. He became a bit of an urban legend in the English department at the University of Richmond. First, he was male, and they were hard to come by in our course of study. Second, his memory borders on photographic. For the first few weeks of September during the fall that we met, I thought he was a total slacker. He never took notes, while I busily detailed everything our professor said. He seemed a little aloof, sitting back in his chair and occasionally glancing out the window at the blossoming trees outside. Why was he even in this class, I thought, my body pitched forward so that I wouldn’t miss anything. Craning myself closer to the Shakespeare lecture would obviously implant the information into my brain more effectively.
When we ended up in a study group together, the other girls and I expressed skepticism before his arrival… until he showed up and schooled the sh** out of us by remembering pretty much every lecture, quotation, theme, historical context, cross-reference, and footnote we’d covered that semester. Thus, Doc became my new best friend—and the source of the best work advice I ever got in college.
“College is not job training. When you get a job, they’ll train you. College is for studying what you love, enjoy, and want to think critically about. It’s about learning and learning how to learn—so that you can learn to be an expert at what you choose to do.”
I’m paraphrasing of course. I don’t have Doc’s memory.
So, I chose English. I minored in Women’s Studies. I was a class shy of an Economics minor, and if there’d been a major in Eastern Philosophy and Religion at the time, I’d probably have that too. I loved these courses, and they led me to work in industries I enjoyed, including education, marketing, media, and, yes, yoga, until merging what I enjoyed most and was best at into my work today. The way my brain functions is no doubt influenced by how it learned to organize and convey information learned in college. However, the world changes drastically over a lifetime, and the best career investment one can make is the desire to work hard and tirelessly on a chosen path. The quickest way to burn out and become miserable is to work at something you don’t like for things that can’t make you happy.
I don’t have a lot of things, but I have all the things I need, which means that in a weird way both pieces of advice worked for me. Or, better yet, I worked for them.
What do you think? What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever gotten? What did you study in college, and how has it moved you through life?