Drawn lines

With the exception of a few doctors and engineers, I don’t believe I’ve ever met a successful adult in a career they identified when they were 17 (I’ve also met some doctors and engineers who didn’t find that calling until they got to college). Most of us don’t follow a straight, predictable line from our teenage years to successful, fulfilling lives as adults. So why is there so much pressure on kids to find their future any differently?

When we pressure kids to identify their future career so they can pick the appropriate major and select the college with the reported strongest offering in that major, we’re forcing a plan on them that both anecdotal evidence and statistics show is very likely to change, maybe even dramatically.

Some of this is a well-intentioned response to a tidal shift where new college grads can no longer walk into the workforce and expect to have jobs and opportunity thrown at them. That’s an outcome of creating the most open, accessible system of higher education in the world; just graduating from college isn’t as special as it used to be. Stumbling through your college years without any sense of what you hope or expect to gain from the experience is not likely to lead to a good return on your investment of time and tuition.

But using college as a springboard to a career you identified before you moved into a dorm is just one way to instill that focus. Another option is to use your time in college to build a remarkable college career, to lean into the boundless opportunities to learn skills you can’t demonstrate on a multiple-choice test or reflect on a transcript. Those are the talents, experiences, and insights that are likely to have broad application no matter where you choose to spend your work days after college.

Some high school students have already found their future calling, but many more have not. For the latter group, let’s move away from asking them what career they want ten years from now. Instead, ask them what they want from their college experience just a few years from now. Do they hope to take steps in a straight line towards a career they’ve already identified? Or do they hope to discover their talents, explore, and find the next trajectory of their curvy line? And most importantly, what will they need to do in college to fulfill those goals, and what type of college environment is the right place for them to pursue them?

Even if you can’t predict the direction of your line, you can engage with the direction as it’s drawn.

For more on this, here’s Adam Grant’s recent New York Times piece.