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Steve Hansen: Playing it safe may not be the best career option

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Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 12:00 am

“I’m happy, g@%&!” My father snarled and growled as he carved the dinner roast. “Don’t you tell me I’m not happy. I’m happy!”

It was another fun family evening at home, and I had once again put my foot in my mouth. However, the resulting ruckus was truly unintentional.

I was in my early 30s at the time. My old man was sitting at the head of the dinner table in his San Francisco flat — pontificating on his choice of careers and how it had brought him unmitigated joy. There was no doubt that he was a world leader in his fields of oral pathology and forensic medicine, but were these sources for happiness?

I had simply commented that he did not seem that happy to me. That observation was enough to spark an emotional explosion. But why? What caused his disconnect between feelings and words?

At the time, I answered him with the mildly sarcastic, “Well, obviously I was wrong about that one!” But at the same time, a memory that my father shared with me years before flashed through my mind.

It seemed that when Pop was in the ninth grade, he came home one day and told his mother that he wanted to take an electronics shop class. Of course, these were the days when radio was in its infancy. He always had a strong interest in this area.

But as the story goes, his mother threw her own fit and told my father that any industrial arts program was out of the question. He was going to take hard sciences to prepare for medical or dental school, and that was it — end of discussion!

Well, that’s what he did and eventually entered dental school a few years before World War II. He spent his entire career in the field of medicine, eventually becoming a full professor and department chair at the University of California, San Francisco. But did that make him happy? And if so, then what caused the isolation of thought and emotion that night? Why didn’t he just laugh off my “absurd” impression?

The pursuit of happiness often requires a passion for something in life. My father certainly had a passion for competition and success, and an unquestionable desire to be the best at whatever he did — bar none. But did he have the same love for medicine itself?

I had a similar experience in my childhood. My passion was cars. I couldn’t get enough of them. But when I told my mother I wanted to pursue this desire, it was family deja vu.

In no uncertain terms, Mom told me that I would take academic courses, go to college, graduate and that was it! The “minimum” she would accept was a major in education.

And so, like my father, I followed her wishes. However, I was unhappy as a secondary teacher. I never liked being Pavlov’s dog and having my day run by a bell. Later, I decided to pursue psychology, and much later in life, law. But neither of these academic pursuits brought me more than temporary contentment. My passion remained with automobiles.

Dad may have had desires for pursuits outside of medicine as well. Later in his life, he got a master’s degree in business administration — a field that had nothing to do with his occupation.

If we both had followed our passions, would Dad have been another Bill Gates, or would he have ended up as a clerk in an electronics store? If I had done so, would I have become a mega-car dealer, or simply a pot-lot, used car salesman trying to eke out a small living?

Parents wanted us to play it safe. While that may have brought security, recognition and an above-average standard of living, it may not have brought happiness.

Pursuing one’s passion is the only way I know how to make that happen — no matter how risky that pursuit might be.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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