When I delivered a speech to a group of young college kids at a luncheon on Thursday, I had no intention of asking them what they want to be. That’s because I already knew what they want to be. And that’s because they all want to be the same thing.

It’s the same thing every college kid wants to be. And every high school kid. It’s the same thing their parents want to be. And their teachers.

It’s also the same thing I want to be.

We all want to be happy.

And since most of us will spend a third of our lives at work, how we choose to earn a living has a lot to do with that. I have a little “formula” for young people to use when trying to pick a career that will result in happiness. First, you have to figure out something you would do for nothing. Then, you have to find someone who will pay you to do it. And that, more times than not, equals a happy life.

For example, if you would tinker under the hood of a car all day long for nothing, then become a mechanic, and get a paycheck for it. I have never met anyone who works on my car who has not looked happy doing it. It applies to everything. If you’d cook a meal for nothing, become a chef; play your guitar, get into music; take care of others, pursue medicine; build things, do construction.

Often when I tell a group of young people I know what they all want to be, one will yell, “Yeah, rich.” It always gets a laugh, but when the laughter dies down, I caution them to be careful if they wind up going down that path. When John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the world in the 1930s, was asked, “How much money does it take to be happy?” he replied, “A little bit more.” Meaning the minute you buy the Jaguar you always dreamed of, your neighbor shows up in a Maserati. It’s a race impossible to win.

I just read in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that “lawyers often wish to be philosophers, and doctors like to imagine their lives as artists.” The writer admitted her evidence was anecdotal, but I have witnessed similar laments and have even known people who have done something about it.

A high school classmate who earned a master’s degree in counseling and landed a good job in the field eventually walked away and spent the rest of his life painting houses. And being happy.

The point is, while earning a good living is important, it is even more important to have a career that you love. You’ve probably heard that if you love your job, you never actually go to work. It’s true.

I’ve suggested to parents that they can get an inkling of the career path their child will take the day they come home from school and say they learned that 2 plus 2 equals 4. If they think that is the coolest thing they’ve ever heard, it may mean — are you ready? — that life will add up for them. That’s because they are likely to embrace the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) which is all we seem to hear about these days. They will become doctors or pharmacists or architects or engineers.

But there are also kids who think “2 plus 2 equals 4” is boring. “Why can’t 2 plus 2 equal 5 or 6 or 250?” they ask, and you start to worry. Or they might ask, “Why can’t it equal something cool, like a cloud, or a tree, or the color purple?” and it begins to sink in that you might have an artist on your hands, a kid who wants to draw and paint, or write stories or be a musician, and you wonder if you’ll have to support them all their lives. But don’t worry. I raised two kids like that and they both found good jobs.

Some have suggested we modify the concept of STEM to STEAM by adding an A for the arts, and I support that notion. There’s debate about the veracity of this story, but it’s been said that during World War II when Winston Churchill included a hefty sum of money for the arts in Great Britain’s budget, and his associates asked him if he’d forgotten they were a nation at war, he replied, “What do you think we’re fighting for?”

In a similar vein, I maintain that while the students who grow up to be doctors and pharmacists may make us live longer, those that become artists, writers and musicians will make living longer worth it.

Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.

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