MAXWELL: It’s important to do what you love

3/25/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


While waiting for a flight from Tampa International to Atlanta last Thursday, I recognized a former colleague, a college English professor, who was grading student essays. She had at least a 6-inch-high stack of the things in her lap.

I used to teach college English, so I knew what she was up against. Not intending to waste her time, I greeted her and was about to leave when she invited me to sit.

She spent at least 10 minutes griping about her job _ too many classes, the research, the pressures of the “publish or perish” rule and, of course, the weekly crush of essays. She was en route to a conference in Maryland and had promised to return the essays on Monday.

“Why do you keep doing this?” I asked.

She sighed. “I’ve done it for so long I’m too scared to change now.”

When she asked me about my job, I suddenly was embarrassed. Her dolor was a tough act to follow. How do you tell a distraught teacher that you enjoy your job, that you are fulfilling a childhood dream?

“It’s a job,” I wound up saying.

Boarding Delta Flight 1980, I realized again how lucky I am. I make a good living the way I have always wanted to: I write for one of the country’s best newspapers. A former migrant farm worker, now I get paid for my opinion. On the plane, I thought of the many people I know who hate their jobs, who feel trapped, who are looking elsewhere, who are simply marking time until retirement _ or death.

A report released last year by the Career Education Corp. reported that half of employed adults in the United States would change their careers, while nearly 25 percent planned to do so in the next 12 months.

How do people wind up in such a predicament of being mismatched with their work? Why are so many not fulfilling their childhood fantasies of employment? The answers are many, varied and complex.

“In our work with people who are doing what they loved to do, we have found a consistent pattern of strengths driven by a particular motivation to accomplish a certain outcome,” write Arthur F. Miller and Marlys Hanson, who conducted the survey. “The fundamental nature of this pattern never changes: The key to productive use of any person is to tap into her pattern of innate strengths, unique power, and passion. Why, then, does job mismatch plague so many? Because neither employees nor managers recognize the existence or the power of innate motivations, nor do they fully comprehend the impact these patterns have on both performance and fulfillment.”

I was surprised to learn that among the professions, journalism, my chosen field, racks up more employee dissatisfaction than any other. In a 1999 survey of 1,156 journalists, mass communications professors David Weaver and G. Cleveland Wilhoit found that 25 percent of interviewees were satisfied with their jobs. Twenty years ago, a similar survey indicated that 50 percent were satisfied.

Another 1999 survey of 1,317 journalists by mass communications professors Ted Peace and J. Frazier Smith showed that 60 percent of respondents said they would not be working for their current publications in five years, while 15 percent said they probably would abandon the profession altogether within five years.

Again, I am lucky.

For many years, I alternated between college teaching and writing for newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, I taught and wrote for popular publications at the same time. In fact, while holding down a full-time job with Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, I wrote articles and a weekly column for the local daily newspaper, often putting in 40 hours. Essentially, I had two full-time jobs. I spent more time at the newspaper than at the college.

Teaching was never my first love. Writing was. So I quit teaching after 18 years. I gave up tenure _ my safe routine and comfortable existence. I quit because I was not enjoying myself. The students were no longer a challenge. And when I started drinking a quart of sour mash each time I had to grade four sets of essays, life had become too grim. I had to go.

What saved me was the courage, or craziness, to start life over at age 49. I came to the St. Petersburg Times in 1994, and have not regretted one minute _ especially when I close my eyes and imagine a stack of ungraded essays on the coffee table. Essays followed me everywhere _ in the car, to airports, to bed, to the bathroom.

Writing is different. The following saying describes me: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Like several other writers I know, life and work are seamless. We live to write and write to live. A vacation is not rest. It is another means to read, to observe, to talk to interesting people, all for the purpose of writing. Some nights, you jump out of bed at 2:30 and write because a great idea hits you. Sometimes, you pull to the side of the road and whip out your notebook.

As a child in my grandparents’ home or on a labor bus riding to another field, I fantasized about writing. When I was 12, my grandmother became the correspondent for the Putnam County Courier, our weekly newspaper. She was responsible for the “star” page _ Negro news. No one knew that while my grandmother did the reporting, I wrote all of the articles until I went away to college. When I was in the migrant stream with my father, my English teacher wrote the articles. I would not leave the TV screen whenever Edward R. Murrow came on.

I wanted to be a journalist.

By chance, I became a teacher. I was a penniless graduate student in Chicago, and a friend, who was teaching at Kennedy-King College, told me that his dean desperately needed English teachers, especially black males who could relate to the many black males there.

I was hired on the spot. And I stayed in the profession far too long.