Monday, August 16, 2010

The "What Now?" Question

By this time of the year any student who's just graduated from high school has six months of practice answering the "what now?" question that they're immediately confronted with when any relative, family friend, teacher or the friendly old guy on the bus hears that they've just graduated. The response has been perfected over months of repeating the same canned response and examination of the ensuing nod.

If this interaction was a metaphor, it's an expectation that the student has his or her life plan "figured out" and articulated in 15 seconds or less. The more concrete the answer, the better. "I'm going into science to get into medical school to become a neurologist" elicits more satisfaction than "I'm going to go into sociology for the moment and see what develops from there" in which case the latter is likely followed up with an incredulous, "and then what?"

Of course, this interaction isn't really a metaphor. The adults asking the question don't really expect someone in that situation to have it all "figured out." They themselves are most likely part of the majority that started out in one program and are now employed in something completely unrelated. They go along and nod, but it's more of the kind of nod that a parent gives their six-year-old when he announces that he is going to play in the NFL.

This all might seem obvious, but it isn't to the students. I've heard students describe their program selection as deciding "what you're going to do for the rest of your life" with complete seriousness. For students, figuring out what the heck that should be and how they get to that through one of the 10-15 options in the university calendar is like making a giant leap into one of only a few tubes, being shot down in it and stuck there for life. This, of course, creates tremendous anxiety. Parents might be the office-managing botany majors, but for fear of their child not taking their program selection seriously or questioning the real value of their degree, they don't come out and say that outside of professional programs, your program and major selection matter very little (which I believe to be true). We owe them some honesty in the university discussion.

The whole idea that you might be able to "figure it out" is supremely flawed. Most adults don't even know what they want to be doing five or ten years down the road. Many might think they have it figured out but if you were to follow-up, reality rarely matches up the description. Leaving the monster that is the passion argument aside, simply predicting what you want to be doing to put food on the table three years from now is a loser's game. In practice, students feel that they're being asked to make a judgement on the course of the rest of their life. They feel they're expected to do this in a vacuum with little experience doing much of anything outside of a classroom. The way to find what you "really want to do" isn't through inspection and reflection. In fact, introspection seems never to bear the fruit you're promised; personal discoveries and self-knowledge seem sooner found via experiments and activity. (h/t Ben Casnocha) You never really stop asking those big questions. Very few people truly do "figure it out."

In sum, I would highly advocate a gap year for self-motivated and proactive students who would greatly benefit from international travel, networking, reading, work experience and all-around (as cliche as it sounds) horizon-expanding. At that age, the extra year of maturity alone makes a tremendous difference.

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