Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hindsight Advice to the Next Generation

"I don't want my kids to follow in my footsteps, to do what I did!"

His vehemence came as a surprise when I opened the email from a dear, long-time friend with two college-age daughters.

My first thought was that his daughters would do well to emulate their Dad.

I've known him since he was a twentysomething just starting out in New York publishing and quickly making a name for himself with his combination of insight, kindness, brilliance, hard work and decency.

But he is adamantly warning his daughters away from the same path -- encouraging them to take summer jobs in financial services, corporate public relations -- anything but journalism, book publishing and other print media. "I tell them that they have a choice: to work hard and make good money in business or to work just as hard and make practically nothing in publishing. I don't want them to have the hardships and the uncertainty, especially with the changing nature of the publishing business these days," he wrote. "I want them to have good lives with financial stability and the freedom to pursue all their creative interests on the side."

I could see his point. If I had children, I might be inclined to urge them to explore careers that they could enjoy and, at the same time, have bright employment and financial prospects. Would I have listened if my parents had urged me in a similar direction? Probably not.

I'm the aging poster child for doing what you love in work where money is unpredictable. I have been an actress, a writer and a psychotherapist.  All hold the potential for good earnings, with hard work and a large -- very large -- portion of luck. Acting, in particular, is an iffy bet in terms of financial security with so much more than talent involved in getting a coveted big break. And even though writing and psychotherapy are more accessible and less arbitrary than show business, financial bonanzas can be elusive. I have written 15 books for major New York publishers. Only one so far has earned decent money -- and that has been over a period spanning more than 30 years. I optimistically started a psychotherapy private practice -- after the investment of tens of thousands of dollars in advanced degrees in midlife -- and found, with the dominance of managed care, my earnings to be steady but modest.

A college friend Kandace, now deceased, also had a journalism degree followed by a midlife switch to psychotherapy. "What is it about us?" she asked over lunch one day. "Why do we gravitate to these various careers where it's so hard to make a living? Do we have a hidden poverty wish?"

One wonders. Perhaps it's a matter of some people putting more value on financial security while others value the experience of following a dream. And one wonders how young people hear these cautionary tales and fervent advice. Do they hear them with the puzzlement evident on Benjamin's face in "The Graduate" when a family friend urged him to consider a career in "Plastics." Or do they take this advice more to heart than previous generations at a time when student loans are so overwhelming and full-time jobs with good salaries and benefits are so hard to come by?

And, for a young person with creative passions, is it possible to have a happy, satisfying life with these pursuits relegated to the sidelines? Or, in the long run, is the pleasure of following one's dreams worth the financial risks? Does it make sense to pursue high-paying jobs, even if the passion is not there? Is following one's low-paying passions always a mistake?

How have you advised your growing or grown children? How have they found a satisfying balance in their lives? More to the point: what choices have you made in life that you hope your children don't make ?

Parental advice can make more of an impression on a young person than many of us imagined -- either as put-upon youth or as concerned parents.

I remember my own parents having their own urgent career advice for us -- advice we heard with half-closed eyes and long suffering attitudes.

Father urged my brother Michael to become a medical doctor, both to avoid being drafted for Vietnam service and to have lifelong security. He himself had aspired to a medical career after experiencing the disappointments of engineering work in a corporate setting but didn't feel he could start over. He wanted Michael to get his career off to a great start. Mike shrugged off the advice, setting his sights on becoming a college math professor and arguing that draft avoidance was an insufficient reason to choose a career in medicine.

 Mother advised my sister Tai, who showed great skill and compassion when family members were ill, to become a nurse. Tai rolled her eyes and insisted that her passion was dance.

Both of my parents rushed to implore me to become a writer which, only in comparison with my other passion, acting, seemed like a more reasonable bet.

It took combat in Vietnam and the passage of time to move Michael in the direction of medicine, in his own time and for his own reasons. It took even more time for Tai to see the wisdom of a career in nursing -- a goal she began to pursue in earnest after life-saving brain surgery, a marriage on the rocks and a toddler daughter to support. I enjoyed five years of doing both writing and acting in my twenties until I became increasingly aware of too many fifty-something actors and actresses who were so talented, so deserving of fame and fortune, who lacked only luck. They were still waiting on tables or driving cabs while hoping against hope for a big break. Writing, while competitive, didn't seem as
arbitrary. If you had talent and a good work ethic, you had a chance. Success didn't hinge on your looks -- at least then. In time, we all became converts to our parents' point of view -- even if our parents didn't live to see Tai's epiphany.

And yet there are young people who follow their dreams and make them happen. My friend Tim has four children -- three of them in the entertainment field. Laura is an award-winning playwright and college professor; Mary Kate is a film and t.v. actress; Stephen is a musical theatre actor/singer who works non-stop. His fourth child, Eliza, is an elementary school teacher. All work steadily and love what they do. None are likely to experience financial windfalls. But they're content.

These are strange times for those of us in midlife and beyond -- a time in life when we look back with longing or amusement or regret at roads taken or not taken. And we want to spare those we love who come after us from some of the rough patches along the way. And so we warn them away from certain career fields or behaviors or relationships without being sure that they've heard us. Then we cross our fingers and hope for the best.

But we know, as our parents did before us, that young people make their own lives, their own success and failure, their own happiness and regrets -- and we can only watch and cheer them on and comfort them along the way.


  1. I am all for everyone doing what makes them happy and gives them purpose--regardless of salary. Salary should be the least concern but sadly today it rarely is. Hope your friends daughters follow the path that brings them satisfaction.

  2. Kathy, after the recent crash I'm not sure any career path is 100% guaranteed to be successful and profitable. I wanted our two to fulfil their potential and do what really motivated them and this they have done. One is a lawyer, working part-time to enable her to spend time with her growing family and the other a research scientist. I'm sure both could have made more in other fields, but they are doing what they want to which is all we can ask.

  3. So much of what we pass on to our children is not verbal at all; it is not even conscious advice. They see and project their lives based on what their parents and their friends' parents do and say, how happy and exciting they are in their chosen fields...
    All of our children pursued their own version of success.

  4. Hi There, Just stopping by to say "Happy 4th of July".... Hope you have an incredible weekend whether you are traveling, with family or friends --or like us, just enjoying being home! We hope to grill a couple of steaks tomorrow. Our weather here is awesome right now...God Bless American --and God Bless YOU.

    All of us parents want the best for our children. I was in a career (fulltime church work) which was rewarding --but never paid much... Neither did my school teaching career early in my working years.... SO--I always wanted to steer my kids in other things so that they could be financially well-off.... BUT--now that I'm older, all I can wish for them is to find something which makes them happy and something they have a passion about--not necessarily something where they can make alot of money. (I've gotten smarter as I've aged!)


  5. Your last sentence is the one that makes sense.
    I know from myself how unlikely it is that children follow a parent’s advice regarding a career. I didn’t even try to influence my children other than to urge them to work at whatever they were going to do.

    They are both in fields I wouldn’t have dreamt of as a career for either myself or them in a million years. Neither is rich but both are content with what they do.

    Parents need to give their children space. Advice is usually not wanted or needed. Except when it’s asked for. Does that actually happen?

  6. I've only encouraged my four daughters to follow their dreams, if possible, but to have a back up plan just in case. To at least give it a go and, if it doesn't work out, that's ok because they would have something to fall back on. And no, I don't believe telling them to have a back up plan was like telling them that their dreams wouldn't pan out. Think of the athlete or dancer who suddenly suffers an injury that prevents him/her from continuing to participate in their sport/activity. Without that college degree to fall back on,what's the next step? All four girls have at the very least tried to follow a dream. One is so determined that she has become the poster child for the 'starving artist.' Another is living one dream now with the hope of following another one soon. The two youngest are both living their dream jobs now and loving it! I wish I had been so lucky. :) The best thing I think I did was to offer them exposure to as many different things as I could, giving them a look at many different options. Each daughter was able to find their own, individual niche. And that was good enough for all of us. I think. Maybe. I'll have to ask them. LOL