This is an article for anyone pursuing a passion. Pursuing a passion and a field where you must put your heart and soul into the work you do every day. A passion and a field where you know what you are doing is a job, but it feels more like a calling and a purpose more than a paycheck. There are plenty of thankless jobs outside of education and human services, as I’m sure most folks in medicine and sales feel underappreciated by employers and clients, but in the end, you write what you know, so that’s what I’m going to do. Because if nothing else, we hope that our own story and some advice from the admirable yet eccentric Parks and Recreation character, Ron Swanson, can help others.
One weekend I began binge watching the NBC comedy series, Parks and Recreation, and I was immediately drawn to the straight shooting and sometimes deplorable character of Ron Swanson. The most admirable thing about Ron Swanson is that he is stout in character, committed to his beliefs, and never misses a moment to speak truth into the lives of those he cares about. As I sat and watched one train wreck of an episode where Ron’s main mentee, Leslie Knope, was doing everything to save townspeople from themselves with legislation, I had the most impactful reflective moment I had experienced in years. Leslie was working to pass legislation and driven to the point of wanting to quit. Not because she didn’t love what she did or because it wasn’t her absolute passion in life, but because she was seeking constant external affirmation both from those she was trying to help and working alongside with. As Leslie is on the brink, Ron looks at her and says,
“You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you. Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.”
This immediately calms Leslie down and helps her realize she is doing this work because it is who she is, not because it is a way to make a living or receive recognition.
In the spring of 2015 I decided I was done with Higher Education. I had received my Master’s in College Student Development in May 2013 and was heading toward the end of my second year of full-time professional employment. My wife had been accepted into an accelerated Bachelor’s of nursing program and we were moving across the state. I saw this as an opportunity to get out and start a new career. What drew me to Higher Education was my passion for student development, for mentoring, educating, and supporting students at their best and at their worst. I was somehow done working with and supporting the day-to-day lives of students because of what I later realized to be exhaustion from the 24/7 type of job I had been doing for years. I was done with trying to collaborate with fellow campus professionals that didn’t seem to have the fire and passion I did. I was done with putting in longer hours than my private sector friends who were making twice as much. I had reflected, and truly believed, my passion for Higher Education was gone and the field was no longer for me.
Fast forward to March of 2016 and I am 9 months into working for an IT staffing company. Phenomenal company with many happy employees, but I was not one of them. I was making more money than I had ever made and was making top bonuses every quarter, but I was completely empty. Working to solely make money for a business and myself was the complete antithesis of who I was and what was motivating to me. I saw that I had become a mentor of sorts to many folks on my team. Every day I was talking them through relationship issues, trying to keep them motivated, and helping them dream of next steps in their careers. It was through that mentoring I had an epiphany and came to my senses regarding my career in Higher Education. I came home one day to my wife and said, “I think I was wrong about Higher Ed, I think I was just upset and leaving my passion was a mistake.” She responded with, “Yea, that’s what I told you last January when you started talking about getting out.”
She gets me. I love her.
Low and behold, two weeks after I realized I wanted to reawaken my passion for Higher Education, I received a text from a friend who works with Alumni and Career Services at Longwood, my Alma Matter, who mentioned there may be an opportunity that I could be a great fit for. Not only were the qualifications a great fit, but it was an opportunity that would perfectly leverage my Student Affairs background, recruiter experience, and specific passion for mentorship. At this point I could not have been more excited because it was as if the opportunity was built for my skillset and interests.
So what happens? I interview a month later, get the job, start in June of 2016, and now five months into being back in Higher Ed I could not feel more fulfilled. The cornerstone of that fulfillment is not just from knowing I am doing what I am meant to do, but it was realizing that real and true affirmation is internal, not external. It was three months into working at Longwood that I binge watched Parks and Recreation. It was three months into my employment that Ron Swanson brought upon the most significant moment of reflection I had experienced in years. “You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you. Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.” This quote hit me because it’s not just about being thanked by others, it's the idea that whether you are thanked or not, it shouldn’t matter. If you put in the effort that it takes to be successful in your passion, the affirmation and drive must reside internally.
I realized in that moment that it wasn’t Higher Ed, it wasn’t the students, and it wasn’t collaboration with colleagues that dimmed my passion, it was me. I hadn’t owned how much of a thankless job Education can seem to be and often really is. I realized that no input of external affirmation could equal the output of care and work I was putting in. I realized it was my job to remain resolute, to always remember the epicenter of my passion. My previous supervisors, staffs, and students all affirmed me, but nothing set in. I stole my own passion, nobody else did that.
The goal of this narrative is to get across one clear point, if you know your passion and are resolute in it, pursue it. Whether you are in the Education and Human Services field or in another field entirely, do not allow the feeling of thanklessness to impact your work ethic or desire to contribute. Realize that appreciation and fulfillment are not synonymous. Almost just as important as that realization is the fact that when you are being uplifted and appreciated, actually let it sink in. And finally, understand that if…“You choose a thankless job, you can’t be upset when nobody thanks you. Don’t start chasing applause and acclaim. That way lies madness.”