This guest post was written by Kenza Moller, a freelance writer and editor (who also happens to edit the Teaching Experiment). You can find more of her writing on her blog.
It’s graduation season, which means shopping for grad dresses, renting those silly square hats, and — for school administrators and valedictorians, at least — preparing speeches. For 12th graders these days, however, it also means facing an extraordinary amount of pressure and uncertainty. On a nearly daily basis, seniors are asked where they’re going, what they’re going to do, and who they want to be. Phrases meant to be comforting — “The sky is the limit,” or “You’ll do great things,” or “You can do whatever you set your mind to!” — often become vicelike, unachievable expectations placed on these kids’ shoulders. And that combination, compounded with years of hearing the success stories of people like J.K. Rowling, Mark Zuckerberg, and Sheryl Sandberg, places an unhealthy pressure on them to earn spectacularly successful degrees and careers.
Ambition and passion are great, and they’re both traits that educators and parents alike should try to instil in their kids. But for most students, today’s undue pressure on being an academic and career success is only going to cause anxiety in the moment and, very likely, disappointment in themselves later on. Unsurprisingly, neither anxiety nor shame is very conducive to discovering who you are, finding your passion, or fueling ambition. So how can we lessen the pressure on kids leaving the nest?
As someone who emerged just a few years ago from the terrifying “What are you going to do with your life?” cycle created by high school and uni graduation, here’s what I wish I’d heard from educators and family at the time.
“What else do you want out of your life?”
Chances are, most people know that they want a supportive group of friends, good health, hobbies. What kind of friends do you want to make? Where do you want to travel? Do you want to live abroad? Do you want a family? What kind of causes can you make a difference with? How can you make the world a better place in your spare time? Most kids aren’t going to be Academy Award winners or take home Pulitzers, but at the end of their lives, people don’t talk about their career milestones. They talk about the memories they shared with people and the differences they made.
Careers are important, and if you find one you love, you can count yourself as lucky. But your life is not just your job, and encouraging kids to think holistically can help them relieve some of the pressure on deciding “what they want to be.” Because if they want to be a happy human, the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” should encompass a lot more than just a job title.
The road to success is far from a straight line.
It’s a cliche, and an overused one at that, but it’s true. Some (infuriating) people in this life know that they want to be concert pianists by age 12, and then they grow up to do just that. Good for them. For the rest of us, success is more like a tangled noodle than it is a straight shot, and we take many deviations on our path there. That Master’s degree that you never put to use? Whoops! That dead-end job you spent two years at because you had to pay the bills? Whoops! All of the things you did because you had no idea “what you wanted to be when you grew up”? Whoops!
But the thing is, you’re gaining experience throughout that entire ride, whether you’re learning people skills or writing prowess or simply resilience. The background you gain in multiple areas will help you no matter where you end up, and there is never a deadline where you run out of chances to reinvent yourself, extract yourself from a narrative you don’t like, or build yourself a new future.
Having many interests is a good thing.
Can’t decide whether you want to be a video game designer, digital marketer, or photographer? Good. Having many interests is something we should be thankful for, rather than hating it for making it so hard to pinpoint one true passion. Just like the Prince Charming myth of one true love, we don’t get one single shot at a career we enjoy. And being curious about the world and the many different paths you could take through it means that, if you learn to dip your toes into different fields, you can have a stunningly interesting life.
Not getting married to the idea of being a world-renowned filmmaker and that’s it is a good thing — it means you can be a filmmaker on the side, a Zumba enthusiast, hiker, traveler, and still go to work everyday as a project manager. All of those moving pieces can change as your interests change, and staying curious about multiple things in life will make your world so much richer than simply going to work, going for cocktails in the evenings, and heading to the fair with the kids on the weekend. Thank your lucky stars that you don’t have a single passion.
Scale back your timeline to right now.
Imagining where you’ll be in one, five, ten, or twenty years can be a fun experiment, especially if you’re excited about where you’re going. But when the future just looks like a big, dark, scary blank slate, being asked what you want to do makes you want to cement in an answer as quick as possible, even if you’re not sure it’s the right fit for you. Instead of encouraging kids to look into future careers, ask them what they can do today to explore fields they’re curious about.
Have them ask: what am I curious about right now? What courses can I take in the next six months to invest in that curiosity? If I like spoken word poetry, can I find an open mic night to attend this month? If I’m interested in engineering, is there a drop-in space I can stop by? What small actions can I take today, in the next 24 hours, to further my goals, have some fun, and test-drive something I’m interested in? You don’t have to decide on a degree today or dream of winning a Nobel prize. You just have to take little steps. And who knows, you might find you don’t even like that field in the first place.
It’s so much easier to try and find your way when you’re not facing unnecessary pressure, and at 18, people need time and experimentation to figure out who they want to be in this world. So yes, make sure you tell kids you believe in them and their potential. But make sure you tell them that they are so much more than just a degree or a career — because they are.