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Ignore the defeatists: Young people should choose purpose over practicality

A financial adviser has recommended young Kiwis give up their dreams and pursue something economically realistic. Derek Handley, part of the panel of futurists on TVNZ’s What Next, says we should all ignore her advice.

The adventure of creating a life worth living is a visceral and human rite of passage. It shouldn’t be driven by one’s head over one’s heart, in a mechanistic exercise of ‘what job should I have to maximise my practicality and financial outcome’. But that is the guidance financial adviser Hannah McQueen is giving young New Zealanders as they consider their career options: choose a life strategy of money-conscious utility over passion.

The privilege of living – and of choice – is to work through the continual self-learning presented to us at every junction, every decision we make, to get closer to understanding who we are and the unique role we each have to play. The only way we can discover this is by following the clues and hints that lie within and around us, and really listening to what speaks to us – sometimes in a roaring voice, but just as often in barely audible whispers.

Many people don’t listen to it, or can’t hear it for all the noise. Many more just disregard it because it’s not sensible to pay attention to it. They prefer McQueen’s advice: to ignore what you care about in life and instead pursue what is practical and acceptable in society to earn a living.

We have delegated and outsourced far too much of our personal purpose and path to this kind of advice on what to do to ‘become’ employable. The further we follow the path of practicality, the more humanity we are taking away from life’s journey.

McQueen says the problem is a lot of people mix up hobbies with professions and encourages us to be “honest about that instead of trying to romanticise about what the workplace is like”. The workplace may only be an unromantic place because of people listening to this kind of advice.

If people brought more of their whole, full selves to work and life as one inseparable unity instead of creating such sharp divides between the two, there would be less distinction between passion and professions. People would be working on what they love and have found some way to connect it to what they love about being alive.

Last year I got to know Raul Oaida, who at 18 left his home in Romania for the US to follow his dreams as an entrepreneur. He didn’t go to university, yet I first learned about Raul when he built a car from more than 500,000 Lego bricks, run by a carbon-free, air-powered engine. He’s still in his early 20s and Raul is motivated by finding solutions to problems that affect our world, not by the anxiety of home ownership or a salary bracket. Because of this passion I have partnered with Raul to build Magpie, a GPS tracking device designed to be a durable and affordable solution to stay connected to the people and things you love and need.

Derek Handley founded Magpie GPS trackers with young entrepreneur Raul Oaida

Any suggestion for people to abandon this aspiration of pursuing what you love is to cut off the potential of young people all around New Zealand. It is to tell them to accept less than who they are, aspire to be less than who they can become, and to admit that life is not to be lived full of meaning and joy in every aspect of what we do.

I met Adriana Christie when she was a socially minded student at AUT. She is a young woman who has always driven her own course. Since leaving university she has built a successful social enterprise that takes wooden pallets destined for the landfill and turns them into furniture, and provides work and opportunities for vulnerable young people. She is an inspirational young leader and was elected to the Waitemata local board last year. Adriana knew this work in social justice was her calling from age 13.

McQueen’s comment that, “17-year-olds can’t really say what they are passionate about. They might know things they enjoy, but they have only been exposed to such a small area of life,” is the most condescending description of a 17 year old that I have read. It discounts how much we really know about ourselves at that age, but may find difficult to express.

I’m convinced that at 17 many of the clues to what drives us and in what environments we thrive are already there. But, instead of helping young people understand the truth of the built-in motivators they already have, we are trying to get 17 year olds to make career and industry choices in a world where half the jobs that exist today won’t even be around in 20 years.

When I was 17 I thought I wanted to be an architect so I went to architecture school. It took me some time to realise on my own that I never ever wanted to build buildings. It dawned on me years later that I only ever wanted to architect ideas, organisations, products, campaigns and start-ups. I thrived on thinking like a designer, a creative who could bring things to life and explore possibilities for a future that didn’t yet exist. I’m an architect, just not of buildings.

Instead of helping young people understand the truth of the built-in motivators they already have, we are trying to get 17 year olds to make career and industry choices in a world where half the jobs that exist today won’t even be around in 20 years.

Yes, perhaps the philosophy I advocate requires more courage. It takes guts. It’s riskier. But if we don’t have the courage to be and live our lives as ourselves, to become who we are, nobody else will do it for us.

Derek Handley is an entrepreneur, investor, and adjunct professor at AUT, which funds The Spinoff’s Society section. As a contemporary university AUT is focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with them today.

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