Advice to Graduates: Do Follow Your Bliss

  • Posted on May 13, 2018

Today's Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier Column:  Advice to newly minted graduates.  STEM and following your bliss: Teaching, transforming, and transcending.  

Another May, another month of country-wide graduation ceremonies bringing free advice for graduating seniors. Here’s mine, worth up to maybe two cents.   

 “Follow Your Bliss,” insists philosopher Joseph Campbell, who wrote “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” “The Power of Myth,” and a half-dozen other ground-breaking books on mythical truths. Campbell believed that living a productive, happy life means following one’s bliss wherever it may lead. 

But what if your bliss involves the creative arts? Music, painting, sculpting, theater, fiction, poetry, promise bliss for those talented and motivated enough to do them well. 

One problem:  bliss doesn’t pay much.  Only a few find careers in the creative arts, so follow the money.   

That’s the popular argument for not funding creative arts in school curricula, public art displays, or college course work. Seeking and creating mere beauty and wonder is play, not work, and therefore can’t be serious. 

Stick with STEM, goes that argument:  Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and leave your bliss for weekends and holidays. 

It’s a powerful argument, and contains enough truth to sway young minds. 

But I reject it. Graduates of the Class of 2018, if your bliss lies in the creative arts, go for it.        

Here’s why.  Engaging in the arts leads directly and inevitably into levels of teaching, transforming, and transcending. These are the “why” of art and artists.         

Everyone engages in these activities on one level or another. That’s what makes them so essential and universal.  Creative artists just do them more directly and more often. 

Teaching:  Humanity would get nowhere without teaching and being taught. Whether we humans teach indirectly by our actions, or directly with stories and lesson plans, our creations help move humanity toward deeper understandings. 

 Most of us can trace our life knowledge back to either some powerful experience, or a film, a piece of music, a painting, a novel.  I remember understanding “totalitarian” deeply after reading Orwell’s 1984 in junior high.             


Transforming:  Just as important, we’re changed by what we do.  Life transforms us, and the creative arts gives perspective to our transformations, revealing insights not available elsewhere.  Consider Huck Finn, Twain’s memorable portrayal of a young boy confronting racism before the Civil War, forcing him to grow up. 

Transcending:  The heart of the artistic enterprise is transcendence. We need to get over and beyond ourselves into the larger universe that’s really out there.  But we experience it only when we leave self-relishing behind, and at their best the creative arts show the way. Kubrick’s iconic film 2001: A Space Odyssey takes viewers “beyond infinity,” provoking awe and wonder.  

Here’s the kicker, graduates:   Creative artists can bring bliss to whatever they do.  If they become engineers or mathematicians, they can still teach, transform, and transcend as artists with math.   It’s a different mindset that begins with creative arts and artists.

They can live the “why” of creative artistry in any profession.   

So, graduates, whatever else you choose, follow your bliss.             

Posted in
  • Hot Button Issues
  • Graduation
  • Education
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

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