How do you guide your young adult to balance their intellectual passion and the desire that they shouldn’t struggle to be able to pay the bills?
I have been writing and rewriting an answer to your question for weeks. Why am I stumbling? Simple as your question seems, whenever money is involved, it’s complicated.
On the one hand, I believe that if we forfeit our passions in life, we are not really living the one life we get to live. On the other, I know that the relentless and soul-crushing anxiety of financial insecurity will undermine all efforts to live that life.
I am born to certain racial privileges (along with gender disadvantages) but know that my perspective encompasses a degree of tone-deafness to the realities of being a young person in our world of 1%ers. I grew up in one economy, and our young adults are growing up in an entirely different one.
But since questions of balance are essentially about priorities, the best I can offer is a reflection on how I have navigated the process myself. In addition to racial privilege, there were two other significant advantages I was born to: parents who weren’t particularly acquisitive and didn't care about keeping up with the Joneses, and who had both set their professional priorities according to their passions as musicians (both were music teachers).
They modeled for me a set of priorities that are foundational to who I am: earn a living doing something that is fulfilling, and make enough to have enough.
That concept of “enough” has been key to my well-being. I’ve lived among the affluent and felt that ache of wanting more but not having the means. I have comforted that ache by remembering that without the comparison, I’m completely content. Do my kids have what they need? Do I have a car that reliably takes me where I want to go? Do we have enough groceries in the fridge? Do we have enough disposable income to eat out when I’m sick of my own cooking? Do we have clean clothes? Can we go to the doctor if we get sick?
Since the answer is yes to all, I remember that I’m already content and more stuff doesn’t bring bigger contentment. I don’t want my cup to runneth over — that will just make a mess on the counter.
I didn’t discover my own intellectual and creative passions until I had lived my adult life for a while. When I was trying to emulate my parents in music, I was miserable though I had plenty of money. When I decided to listen more carefully to my own interests and realized I had to change professions, I was torn between law school (where I would certainly make lots of money) and social work school (where I would certainly NOT make a lot of money).
So I spent a day at the library reading law texts and social work texts. I was so bored by Criminal Law and Procedure, Cases and Materials and so fascinated by Social Work Practice and Social Welfare Policy in the United States: A History, my decision was clear. And knowing that “enough” felt like “luxury,” I was able to move in the direction that felt good professionally (interesting, meaningful, challenging, purposeful) even though the pay would never be abundant.
Sometimes I didn’t have enough and I needed help. When I was in my mid-20s and in graduate school, I worked nights doing document prep for a mergers and acquisitions firm. That gig included dinner delivered from any one of a thousand restaurants in New York City’s midtown, and a ride home in a car service if we were there after midnight. Never underestimate the perks of being luxury-adjacent.
After I got my Master’s in Social Work, I was a modestly paid therapist at a drug rehab and could afford to spend money, opting for Chanel cosmetics. Then I was laid off. While I looked for another job I was on food stamps and got help from my parents to pay rent. Then I got a job at a homeless shelter and didn’t need food stamps or help with rent but I didn’t buy Chanel any more because it was just too weird trying to reconcile the scent of my pricey cosmetics with my clients’ homelessness. (I switched to the less expensive Clinique.)
Once I got myself anchored professionally and started to really build a career, I stopped being interested in wearing makeup but treated myself to Chinese takeout once a week. When I was first married and had endured six arduous winters in New Hampshire, I realized I loved being outside and moved to California so I could be in nature more. Now, all of my money is in my house, I don’t eat out, I have lots of room to garden, and I don’t wear makeup. I am fortunate to have an older sister who loves to buy me clothes at thrift stores, leaving me enough to buy really good shoes.
I’m glad your question asks about balance, which does not pit the internal pull of intellectual passion against the external pull of financial stability. Balance is about understanding those pulls as dynamic, and allowing the reconciliation to be fluid and flexible. Finding balance is a process that constantly unfolds as passions and priorities change.
Perhaps the answer to how to guide your child is to tell them your story. And encourage them to hear lots of different peoples’ stories, which will undoubtedly show them that there are infinite ways to balance life’s internal and external demands.