In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is in therapy with Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams. Will is a young man at a crossroads. The woman he loves is off to California for graduate school, and he has to decide whether or not he should go with her. He has to decide whether or not he is going to “go see about a girl.”
Like all college professors, I have office hours. Unlike most college professors, a good portion of my office hours tend to be spent talking with young adults about whether or not they should “go see about a girl” (or a boy). My course at Northwestern University, “Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101,” isn’t an ordinary college course. The course sits at the intersection of traditional academic learning and experiential learning, so my students spend ten weeks applying the art and science of love to a very important case study—their own lives! Sometimes in office hours, our talks are heady—we unpack a concept from lecture that still feels fuzzy or we debate a theory that feels unsettling. But mostly our talks are heart-centered, unpacking is the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that create the lens through which they experience their love lives.
Because most of my students are graduating seniors, we end up talking a lot about whether their current romantic relationship ought to end on graduation day or continue into the great wilderness know as life after college. Certainly, each student carries a story that is unique to their experience, but there is a central theme across many of these conversations I have. The theme is the tension between career and love. I understand that talking about choices and self-actualization vis a vis work is a privilege in and of itself, and this is not the experience of all people. My students often come to me with the question: “Should I choose what is ‘best’ for my career or should I choose love?” Let’s look at two problems that emerge immediately with the posing of this question:
- This question is binary—career or love. Generally speaking, when we view decision points as either/or, we have forgotten that life is lived in infinite shades of gray. I have yet to hear a story in which choosing a path that prioritizes one’s love life means obvious career suicide.
- I am old enough and humble enough to know the limits of advice. I don’t have a crystal ball and I generally avoid telling people what to do. What I do have are observations and a deep sense that when someone is willing to sit with us and patiently visit a variety of perspectives, our awareness expands. Answers begin to emerge from within. And those are the best and bravest answers anyways—the ones that come from internal alignment and a trusty relationship with ourselves.
Given this, there is a far richer question waiting to be asked: “How do I make choices that honor my desire to create a life with both work that I can love and love that I can work?” For those who are stepping into this question, I offer a few ideas for your consideration.
These are conversations of a lifetime.
The tension between career and love is a fact of life, so when young adults are grappling with this fork in the road, I say (lovingly of course), “Welcome to adulthood!” The poet David Whyte frames the tension between career and love as an ongoing conversation—one that takes place within you as well as between you and your partner. I love this perspective because it honors that this is a long, slow unfolding rather than a problem to be fixed. Your career and your love life will be talking to each other for many years.
- Your career and your love life will be talking to each other when your partner feels neglected because you have been working late to make a deadline.
- Your career and your love life will be talking to each other when you and your partner are deciding whether and when to become parents.
- Your career and your love life will be talking to each other when you and your partner are debating who will take the day off because your kid just barfed.
The question of how to honor the opportunities within a career and the opportunities within love is profound and ordinary at the very same time. It is a question that is not going to go away any time soon, so you may as well offer this question a seat at the table of your life.
The voices around you count but not more than your own.
You need a tribe. All of us do. We need trustworthy allies who have our backs. If we are blessed, our tribe includes parents and other family elders, friends, teachers, mentors, and (of course) a very good therapist! When you are standing at a crossroads, deciding to make a move for love or for career, it is ever so tempting to poll your tribe, tally the votes, and go from there. But I invite you to be discerning. Remember that there is no such thing as capital T truth. The perspective of every member of your tribe is just that—a perspective. Perspective is local not absolute. Your father’s perspective is shaped by his gender, his relationship history, his age, his personality, and on and on. So is your pastor’s. And your roommate’s. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, but it does mean that no voice should louder than your own.
What I hear over and over from my students is a story that making the choice “to see about a girl” is silly. I hear a lot of self-flagellation that pursuing love means that they are “needy, clingy, weak, and dependent.” If this feels like your story, I invite you to explore it. Ask yourself questions like:
- Where does this story come from? Whose story is it that pursuing love is silly?
- To what degree does this story serve me?
- To what degree does this story constrain me?
- What would I choose if I didn’t carry this story?
This is complicated stuff. It is complicated for women who move through the world with a double whammy. Women who partner with men face greater risks of being hurt (physically and emotionally) because we live and love in a patriarchy, and all women face pay inequity and other forms of discrimination in the workplace. These degrees of complexity hold for people of color and other marginalized groups as well. And, at the very same time, love matters. Loving and being loved has a profound impact on who we are as individuals. Love is a potent force of healing in our homes and communities. Doing what it takes to create respectful and mutually-supportive intimate relationships is worthwhile.
The bottom line is that I see nothing silly at all about being open to love and curious about love. There is great courage in opening ourselves up to the unknown adventures of love. It takes guts to go “see about a girl.”