Finding Your Passion: My Story – Part One

Finding Your Passion is a three part installment. Please enjoy Part One below, and check back next week for Part Two!

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In Joseph Campbell’s book, The Power of Myth, he famously advised his students, “Follow your bliss.” Great advice, though I think much debunked of late, for instance by billionaire Mark Cuban. To each his own. Watch the videos of Campbell and Cuban. Choose your guru. Your choice.

My advice is simple. Follow your passion. Easily said, but how do you find your passion, exactly?

I am often asked this. I can only tell you how I found mine or how it found me. And, it looks like a long series of accidents. Here’s my (long but worth the read) story of how I stumbled upon mine.

I grew up in the strange conflict embodied by my father between doing good and doing well. A dedicated social activist who barely scratched out a living making custom furniture for the at least well-to-do and for some of the wealthy while my mother, tutoring privately in reading and math, paid our middle-class bills. My father, I always knew, was awed by the highly successful people that he built furniture for. They liked him and he liked them. Did he envy them? It’s possible. Toward the end of his life when he was feeling that he was a failure, I knew he meant he felt guilty my mother had had to support the family. Growing up with this dilemma, perhaps determined that I would become a social worker, looking to change the world while making a living.

The summer after my freshman year of high school, I found myself working at a social work camp, yet I had no idea what a social worker was. But having gone to summer camp as a kid, I was looking for a job and responding to ads in the New York Times. I found myself hired by Wel-Met, a big social agency camp with roots in the Jewish community center movement. The pay would be $200 for eleven weeks work as a waterfront counselor and stamped on my contract, a $25 bonus for attending a weekly social work recruitment seminar. An extra $25 seemed like a lot of money.

When I arrived at camp, I was told it was a mistake. “You have to have completed your sophomore year to be eligible,” I was told.

“It’s stamped on my contract.” I held my ground. I really wanted the $25.

“You are going to find it’s not worth it unless you are really interested in a career in social work,” they argued.

“I’m definitely interested,” I said.

I lied.

Jack Goldberg, Wel-Met Executive Director, taught the seminar. Later Dean of the NYU School of Social Work, he was a tough guy but down to earth, colorfully cursing to make a point. He was also a turning point in my life.

My sophomore year of college, in trying to figure out what to major in, I went to talk to Owen Jenkins, who was my professor for the best English course I ever had. Actually, it was the best course I had in all four years of college, The Age Of Johnson, where we read Tom Jones, Clarissa, and Tristram Shandy, all published within 10 years. Tom Jones, said Owen, was the greatest 18th Century novel; Clarissa was the greatest 19th century novel; and Tristram Shandy, the greatest 20th century novel. Someone later told me that you are lucky in your higher education if you get one great teacher at each level. Owen was my great undergraduate teacher. When I asked him if I should major in English, he laughed, “I don’t’ see that you have any choice. We are the only ones who will understand when you think that an assignment is irrelevant and don’t bother to do the readings.” The argument appealed to me, and I would go on major in English. But,  it was another fifty years before I began to appreciate the specificity of his insight into me. I still skip what I think is irrelevant. Not everyone understands.

Kayla of Class 302 artfully showcases her passions.

My college years were largely focused in our small theater group, first in lighting, then performing small parts, experimental play direction and playwriting, and eventually a big role as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and directing a major production, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Summers were spent at Wel-Met, working my way up in the counselor hierarchy. At the end of my junior year, I went into meet with Jack. I actually may have been the only counselor to schedule one-on-one time with him.

“Do you think I should become a social worker?” I asked.

“Do you realize that you asked me exactly the same question at exactly the same time in this summer last year?” Jack responded. (Spoken like a true Zen master.)

The following fall I struggled with my future: to apply to graduate school in social work or to graduate theater school in directing? At home for Christmas, leafing through the New York Times I was looking at the on-Broadway listings. I noticed that every play on Broadway was directed by the same small group of people, Mike Nichols and a couple of others. What were the chances of getting to direct a Broadway play? And what were the chances of getting to choose the play I would direct? The odds are that I would end up directing plays in a college theater or worse, amateur community productions. That was, at least, my view at the time. So, I chose social work school. Certainly the easier path, but not a passionate choice.

I chose Columbia because they required no interview and offered full tuition support, a federally funded scholarship for people who would work with the disabled. I grabbed the scholarship and I fulfilled its requirement by spending my first field work year at the Institute of Crippled and Disabled (since renamed), an experience which confirmed my intention to work anywhere else.

While at Columbia, I was fortunate to have one great teacher, Bill Schwartz, who brought a level of rigor to thinking about social work practice beyond anything else I experienced at Columbia or in social work since. In an era of feelings and encounter groups and letting it all hang out, Bill’s way strongly supported the notion, if not explicitly stated, that “smart” counted.

After Columbia, faced with choice of continued graduate study or eligibility for the Viet Nam draft, I chose the doctoral program at NYU in sociology. Attending school while working full time as a social worker (I had been dependent on my parents long enough), it was not until my third year that I met Alan Blum, the great professor of my doctoral program chapter.  I had already taken all the course work I needed, so I sat in on his lectures until he left for York University in Toronto. Even afterwards, graduate students would debate his ideas over coffee and beer. I don’t know that Alan ever knew who I was, but he turned a light on within. me. Alan was a huge advocate of rigorous thinking and for understanding what rigorous thinking was and how it was possible, perhaps even more remarkably, to show how it is possible. He created the space for me to embrace thinking and smart.

My career soon began.