May 1, 2019
Karl Gude is the director of the Media Sandbox in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, a creative and exciting program comprised of community, collaboration and curriculum. He is the former director of information graphics (Infographics) at Newsweek magazine, The Associated Press, The National Sports Daily and the New York Daily News. He teaches CAS 110, a 500-student Media Sandbox class on creative thinking and problem solving, and his home unit is the School of Journalism.
It’s graduation time. Here's my guide to success and happiness for students, graduated or not, who are uncertain about a career and life-path, along with a recommendation to worried, over-controlling parents...
I’ve learned a lot from talking to students over the last 14 years about their next moves when they graduate, and there have been many tears. Most students and their families expect the graduate to step into that dream job they’ve been studying for, and many of them will. But others aren’t as certain of their path and are stressed about what to do.
Many students seem to feel that, because they hastily picked a major when they were 19, they've doomed themselves to a life doing only that thing. But, there is no single path in life. Life’s more like a pinball machine where interests and opportunities bounce around almost unpredictably based on what came before. That's what keeps people growing and makes life fun and interesting.
I suggest to students they challenge this burdensome “dream job” career expectation, as well as anyone pushing that agenda, and embrace the fact that their uncertainty is completely normal. As a condition of youth, it’s their job to go forth and explore the world to discover who they are, who they aren’t and how to be happy — things school doesn’t always give them. These should be exciting times; the world is a lot of fun when approached on one’s own terms. Instead, for many students, this amazing-job expectation makes this a time of great anxiety, and there's absolutely no need for them to feel this way.
Worried parents can do a disservice to their kids by suggesting that they are indebted to them for raising and educating them and must, therefore, heed their advice. They feel they know how the world works and want to ensure their kids are happy, responsible and successful, but students shouldn’t buy into this. We brought our kids into this world and it’s our duty to give them every opportunity to live their own life with no strings attached. And, when they’re 18, let go and let them fly solo. That's not to say they may want your coaching and advice, though, and would likely be appreciative of the occasional safety net when needed.
Parents may read this and think, "There's no way my kid wants control of their life yet." Then begin the process of helping them become independent adults, instead of dependent kids. Cut them loose and offer to help them determine what they want.
Young people don’t need permission to go exploring, and they don’t need to apologize for their uncertainty. They don’t need to feel guilty about not using their degree, and they don’t need to convince others why “finding themselves” is important to them. They’re full-blown adults and what they do from this point forward is no one else’s business, regardless of who tries to make it their business. They get to live their lives however they want (as long as they’re getting those student loans paid off!) They're the ones who have to live it, not us.
When others micromanage a young adult’s every decision, they’re sending a strong signal that they don’t think that person is mature or smart enough to make the "right” decisions for themselves. This erodes confidence and doesn’t prepare them for life. Young people have every right to tackle the path they’ve chosen head-on, to make their own mistakes, to experience their own failures and to enjoy victories of their own making so they can grow strong and world-savvy. What they don’t need are others judging them with eye rolls and I-told-you-sos when something doesn’t work out. Letting go for families can be very hard because they still view their kids as children who need them, but not letting go can prevent the child from becoming self-actualized and from realizing their full potential.
To truly experience the fullness of life, young people will have to find ways to get beyond the fears that hold them back. Part of that involves finding the courage to push away other people’s definition of success and redefining it based on who they are and what they think they want for themselves, a definition that may change several times across the course of their lives. And, sometimes, the success they feel they must pursue isn’t from another person’s definition at all, but simply what they’ve been conditioned to believe based on what society expects of them. So, the voice telling them how to behave and what success is is their own. They see all their peers pursuing the golden goose and feel shame when they’re not.
Pushing aside societal expectations is no easy task, but the potential rewards are huge: they’re less likely to be 40-year-olds trapped in a life they hate. I think one of the hardest things for young people to do in life (for many of us, really), is to realize and accept that they are powerful, competent and in control, despite what others may have them think. If you're a young person who has given your power away, it’s time to take it back. (If you’re 40 and still haven’t taken it back, there’s no time like the present!)
Recovering one's power — the right to decide how you’ll live your life — doesn’t have to be all at once or hugely confrontational. Ultimately, people have to choose, unapologetically, to live by their own rules and to cling to them like a life preserver, then see where that leads them. And not everyone’s going to be happy about this. If living life on your own terms is important to you, you have to learn to live with the discomfort of some people close to you judging you and believing you’re wrong to do this. It should get easier as everyone settles into the idea.
My wife once read that you have to train people how you are willing to be treated and to find the courage to have people dislike you. Yikes. A tall order, but a journey that can be taken with baby steps.
If you’re a student reading this, here’s a simple guide that may help you find answers in the face of uncertainty, and clues to what path to start down. Write lists on the following things and look for connections. Be as comprehensive and honest as possible:
- What are you willing to sacrifice? (ie: Do you need to have a bed to sleep in or can you grab a piece of floor in a friend's apartment in a new town for a few weeks?)
- What do you like? (Get into detail here, and leave no stone unturned.)
- What do you dislike? (Even if you aren’t sure what you like, knowing what you don’t like can also be a good start.)
- What do you care about? (Passion stems from the concept of “suffering physically for something you love.”)
- What are you good at? (No time for modesty or muddling this with other people’s opinions. Be honest. Include random things like skipping rocks, singing and talking to people)
- In what ways are you your worst critic? (These are just thoughts, and you control them, so reframe negatives to positives. Make an effort to stop being so hard on yourself with self-judgment. Love, accept and forgive yourself.)
- What do you fear? (Know that your happy place is probably on the other side of those fears)
- What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?
- How do you define success? (Don’t just say work-related things; include ideas like “to accept myself wholeheartedly.”)
Reused with permission from a public Facebook post