Zen and the Art of Hamster Maintenance: Thoughts on Passion, Purpose, and Parenting

by Truly Render

Ten years ago, I lucked into a career in the arts. I say “lucked into” because there are loads of other qualified, experienced, arts-loving, ambitious people trying do exactly what I’m doing. The field is competitive; hundreds of people submit their candidacy for a single part-time opening at some of the organizations I've worked with. I don’t take my position for granted and when I can, I try to help others interested in pursuing careers in the field. To this end, I’ve been serving on a number of college student career panels, providing living, breathing proof of the ever-elusive “career in the arts.” Students have lots of questions for me, but one question in particular keeps cropping up: “How did you find your passion?”

I hate this question. It never fails to make me feel like a floundering hack. My “passion” for the arts isn’t Amelia Earhart’s plane or my car keys we're talking about; I know exactly where it is at all times. Great art has always been what I get out of bed for in the morning. It’s the thing I can’t stop talking about. How can you even go about misplacing something like that? More importantly, how is it that a generation of students has been taught that career passion is critical and yet hasn’t the foggiest idea of what that means for them?

My “passion” for the arts isn’t Amelia Earhart’s plane or my car keys we’re talking about; I know exactly where it is at all times.

According to Lisa Inoue, L.M.S.W. and co-facilitator of the Ann Arbor Mindful Parenting Group, children as young as three show a special affinity for certain activities; it just takes a parent’s attunement to notice and provide appropriate structure for the child’s developmental stage and personality in order for that interest to blossom.

“Young children have an innate sense of ‘this feels good in my body and I love it,’” said Inoue. “What is trickier to parse out is ‘this feels good in my body and my mom is so proud of me when I do it.’” While encouraging desired behavior through positive parental response is critical, Inoue said that it is just as important for parents to validate the child’s attempts at “being different.” Encouraging their individual expression gives children the emotional skills they need to self-discover with confidence as they get older.

So when my five-year-old daughter, Lila, insists on making her own wardrobe selections — complete with mis-matched tube socks, a thousand bead necklaces, and wild, unbrushed hair — I just need to let that look happen. Aside from the fact that I don’t relish spending precious time in the morning arguing about how many legwarmers are too many, I will now take total solace in the idea that Lila’s self-curated style might give her practice at confidently defining her role in the world in larger ways down the road.

… how is it that a generation of students has been taught that career passion is critical and yet hasn’t the foggiest idea of what that means for them?

Ultimately, our job as parents is to prepare our kids for these "down the road" moments, but it is really easy to get caught up in the warm glow of nostalgia when we're with our kids. I was convinced that my daughter would love hiking because I loved it as a girl; she hates it along with museums and Charlotte's Web, two of my other childhood favorites. Every time I feel myself becoming insistent that Lila have these experiences, I try to remember my youth soccer coach, Dan. Once a spry fútbol player, Dan was a sagging grey man trying to re-live his youth through a gangly group of third grade girls he dubbed The Orange Crushers.

None of us Crushers were particularly "passionate" about soccer but we liked running around outside and we lived in the suburbs, so why not? Our attitude of casual exploration, of childhood curiosity: this was infuriating to Dan. At each game, our clumsy kicks, our flinching at the goal created a volcanic rage in him. His face would redden, his arms would shake, he'd rip the attendance sheet from his clipboard and tear it in two. We'd watch him from the field, mouths agape. It was funny, it was scary, and it was sad. He was the dad of one of the teammates and we felt bad for her, even though she was terrible at understanding social cues (imagine that) and had really stringy hair. I'd never want to shampoo properly either if I had a tyrant like that living in my house, I thought. I'd just want to hide. Dan was forcing his passion for soccer on his child and her schoolmates and it was a disaster. We Orange Crushers were privy to what must've been the cause of much of her social awkwardness. It was a learning moment then and continues to be one for me now.

We can’t control what our kids love and what they don’t. We can introduce ideas and facilitate learning, but after that we have to step back.

Eventually, Dan was fired from his volunteer position of soccer coaching and replaced by another dad who didn't call his eight-year-old charges "little shits." We can't control what our kids love and what they don't. We can introduce ideas and facilitate learning, but after that we have to step back. We can't live vicariously through our kids — we have to let them choose their own passions.  

I want to give Lila free reign over her pursuits, but what if this road to self-discovery leads to a place where she drops out of college to front a Kenny G tribute band? Or spends a summer as a Tea Party intern on the 2028 campaign trail?

“It’s reasonable that a parent would be concerned,” said Inoue. “Every parent wants their children to have quality of life and be able to support themselves. Parents need to have a warm, open, and loving conversation with their child about their concerns.” They also need to accept the outcomes of those conversations. Inoue said:

If they feel their child should study something more practical alongside their ‘passion project,’ they should say so. And the child may say, ‘No, this is what I’m meant to do and I’m doing it.’ At that point, the parent needs to work on untangling their well-being from the well-being of their child. As children become adults, a healthy parent-child relationship depends on this acceptance.

While my parents were unfailingly supportive of my artistic pursuits in young adulthood, my husband’s parents were less than thrilled when he “came out” as a writer in college. His parents are incredibly hardworking people, a line-worker at GM and an inner-city school teacher. Shaun’s parents wanted nothing more than for their son to have a stable “forever job” in engineering or business. He chose English. He couldn’t help but write and had a nearly insatiable craving to get better at it.

“Passion comes from purpose…. Purpose is what happens when you’re able to identify your core values, think outside yourself, and apply those values to the world at large.”
— Dr. Vic Strecher

In his adult life, Shaun’s always held a day job, paying his share of rent by using his editorial and writing skills in the realms of journalism, marketing, and publishing. But he’s also tenaciously pursued a career as a creative writer. After ten years of freelance, ghostwriting, and publication in obscure literary journals, we celebrated his first big project with a publisher this May.

While Shaun bristles at the word “passion,” it is clear that he is deeply dedicated to exploring the world, exploring ideas, and starting conversations through writing. And to get to this place, he had to make a choice: to live with the discomfort of parental disapproval. Shaun’s word of caution: “Parents aren’t the only ones who need to untangle their well-being from the well-being of others; young adults may also find themselves doing the same.”

“This is a defining developmental step during the college years,” said Inoue. “Young adults are parsing out who they are and defining the life they want to live.”

Perhaps thinking of one's life work as "passion" just really isn't helpful for some people. In his original graphic novel On Purpose, Dr. Vic Strecher, Professor and Director for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, offers readers a fresh way of thinking about the life they want to live, arguing that purpose, not passion, may be at the root of health and happiness.

“Passion comes from purpose,” said Strecher. “It is the commitment, drive, and engagement that motivates purpose. Purpose is what happens when you’re able to identify your core values, think outside yourself, and apply those values to the world at large.”

… my husband’s parents were less than thrilled when he “came out” as a writer in college.

On Purpose, based on a course Strecher teaches at U-M, provides an interactive approach for readers to discover their purpose, weaving in personal story, historical anecdotes, scientific research, and philosophy. An app accompanies the book, allowing readers to keep a daily log of how their activities align with their stated purpose. In the book and on numerous idea festival circuits worldwide (including TED Talks and the Aspen Ideas Festival), Strecher encourages people to embrace the concept of purpose for the sake of their health. The book cites numerous studies that draw strong correlations between purpose and longevity, purpose and greater sexual satisfaction, purpose and fighting addiction, and even purpose and avoiding illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease.

“Many students struggle with the question of purpose because their purpose has been imposed upon them,” said Strecher. “You see these birth announcements where parents are introducing their newborns as 'Future Doctor,' and while I’m sure it’s tongue-in-cheek, it’s often the start of a destructive life-long relationship where kids are bullied into a purpose by their parents.”

“That said, it is equally problematic when students fall in love with an activity very early on in life and decide it is their purpose to the exclusion of all else.” I tend to agree with Vic on this one. Career limitations aside: people who do this make awful conversationalists.

“My advice to students: don’t worry about having a purpose in your twenties. Learn as much as you can about the world; take classes in subjects that you don’t know anything about, travel, talk to people who have different opinions than those you hold, absorb the world without judgment. Only by doing this can students create values that are truly their own, leading to the discovery of purpose,” he said.

Recently, I asked Lila what her purpose was in life. She answered, “To feed my pets everyday.” While most adults might be tempted to laugh this answer off and fish for a purpose with a tangible career trajectory, Strecher commended Lila with sincerity. “That is amazing,” he said, “she’s thinking outside of herself, thinking of others. That is the self-transcendence that you need to define purpose.”

The great thing about purpose as Vic Strecher defines it is that it can — and probably will — change over time. While I don’t expect that Lila’s life will always revolve around providing breakfast seeds for her hamster, I feel good about her ability to discover her own values, to find her purpose in life when the times comes. I give Shaun and myself a solid parenting B+ on that front. If Lila chooses to spend her life honoring a smooth jazz saxophonist, we're ready to have that tough conversation. But in the meantime, we'll do our best to stay attuned to her curiosities, encourage broad learning about the world around us, and refrain from calling anyone under the age of 10 a little shit.

Truly Render is the press and marketing manager for the University Musical Society. When not at work or swimming with her daughter at the YMCA, Truly enjoys reading, writing, and enjoying the incredible cultural offerings of southeastern Michigan with friends and family.

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Posted on December 31, 2014 and filed under Parenting.