How To Make College Work For You: An Easy Exercise

College is a tool, not a stork.

You arrive at college. You hear from someone that you’re supposed to choose a “major.” That major can (maybe) get you jobs doing X, Y, or if you’re lucky, Z. This professor is boring but easy. That professor is fun but hard.

Four years later, you graduate. Newly-Graduated You probably takes a job that would make Newly-Arrived You frown and say, “Really?”


College is mythologized as being a stork that will deliver you to the American Dream. It doesn’t. But it’s not supposed to. Your life is bigger than your major and whatever job you take after graduation. The college education is helpful, to be sure. Depending on what you want to do, it might be necessary. Vital even. But, really, it’s lifelong self-awareness paired with lifelong learning that drops you at your dream’s doorstep.

College is a tool, not a stork. And, like any tool, it’s only useful if you use it for a specific purpose.

This is not an indictment of college. It is unrealistic to expect an institution, through which thousands of students pass, to hand-deliver them there. Instead, this is a call-to-arms to students: Take matters into your own hands. Take the time to plot a vague destination then guesstimate a path to get there. It won’t work out like that. It never does. But in a world of paralyzingly infinite possible directions, choosing one narrows it down. Choosing and charting a path makes things workable. Doable.

In other words: Don’t listen to that person telling you to choose this major or that class. Sure, maybe they’re right. But don’t use them as your launching-off point. Use yourself.

Aspirations

Humans have always been short term thinkers and doers. And that’s a good thing. If early humans hadn’t asked questions like “Where’s my next meal?” or “Where will I sleep tonight?”, our species wouldn’t have lasted very long. Early humans were short term people because they had no choice.

We, however, do have a choice. We needn’t concern ourselves with day-to-day survival. Instead, we can concern ourselves with the year-to-year and the decade-to-decade.

Yet so few of us do. Almost everyone we know has aspirations they will accomplish “someday, when I have more time.”

A sad truth of the human condition: Most people die regretting things they thought about doing but never actually did.

Another sad truth: Each of us thinks we’re the exception. We will be the person that actually does the thing.

But that math doesn’t add up.

Why?

We were born into the world created by those early, short term humans. Path dependency set in, and we’ve been on that course ever since. Without realizing it, we were conditioned to neglect our long term interests for short term benefits.

Path dependency explains much of the world around us. It occurs when previous decisions, made in response to now-extinct problems, irrationally limit responses to existing problems. The term is primarily used by political scientists, historians, and economists to describe public policy and market decisions. I won’t wade in that water here. What’s relevant here is that path dependency in society creates path dependency in our lives. Unless we resist it, we succumb to its gravitational pull.

Patterning your life around other’s opinions is nothing more than slavery.
— Lawana Blackwell

Identifying Our Aspirations

In a previous article, I introduced an exercise for figuring out our current trajectory, i.e., how to extrapolate our daily actions five years forward. Here, we’re doing something different. This time, the answers are not found in our day-to-day actions; this time, the answers lie within. Instead of plotting where we are currently headed, this time we’re going to plot where we want to go.

Some aspirations lay exposed at the surface — we may have given voice to them, or even acted upon them — but many are hidden, and we irrationally perceive others as too “ambitious” to actually try. The only way to lay our aspirations bare is to gather them in one place. I suggest setting aside some time, finding a quiet space, and brainstorming a long, unedited, stream-of-consciousness list. Do not worry about prioritizing the list yet.

Aspirations vs. Goals

As you brainstorm, keep in mind the difference between aspirations and their more-concrete conceptual cousin, goals:

aspiration |ˌaspəˈrāSH(ə)n|noun(usu. aspirations)| a hope or ambition of achieving something: he had nothing tangible to back up his literary aspirations.

goal |ɡōl|noun|the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result: going to law school has become the most important goal in his life.

There is much overlap between the two terms, but the primary difference between aspirations and goals is that the former are amorphous hopes or ambitions, while goals are tangible. Aspirations come from our imagination and our gut; goals involve rational thought and reflection. Aspirations are the clay. Goals are the form the clay takes.

Here, we’re making the clay. For now, assume everything you want to achieve is an aspiration, not a goal. This will allow you to expand your mind, to access ideas before they’re fully-formed. This is often the source of our greatest passion projects. If you think exclusively in terms of goals, you will restrict the flow of ideas.

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
— Lao Tzu

The Easy Exercise

Divide a large piece of paper into three columns (or use a whiteboard or computer program — it doesn’t matter.)

In the left column, write down your aspirations. Don’t worry about the wording of the aspiration, the specificity, timeline, or anything else. You are just brainstorming.

Begin with the aspirations most obvious to you. If you’re in school, it is presumably to graduate. If there’s something specific you want to do, add it. If it’s something outside the scope of school, great, add it. If it’s ambitious to the point of being unimaginable, great, add it. Include habits you want to lose and those you want to gain.

Next, fill out the middle column. Here go the objectives that must be taken to realize the aspiration. By “objective,” I mean a step on the way towards realizing the aspiration.

Note which objectives are directly related to school (e.g., getting a particular grade in a particular class), which are not (e.g., writing a screenplay), and which are both. For example, if your aspiration is to be a Hollywood actor, objectives might include classes and college theatre, but also getting parts in local theatre productions, commercials, independent films, etc.

In the third column are the actions necessary for each of the objectives. To continue with the actor example, actions might include taking an acting class, auditioning for roles, etc. Again, precision earns no points here. You’re just brainstorming — there’ll be time to polish and fill in gaps later. (Several decades worth of time, hopefully.)

Here is an example of an aspiration/objective/action breakdown:

If there’s ROTC at your college, you could add it as a school-related objective and necessary actions. Another objective might be “get a good GPA” because, presumably, that’s required too.

Dig Deeper

At some point, you will stop writing because no other aspirations come to mind. This means you are about 1/2 of the way there. There is more work to do. Close your eyes, think about it. Dig around your mind. You will find more.

In order to attain the impossible, one must attempt the absurd.
— Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Ask yourself questions, both easy and hard, such as:

What will give me purpose, a sense of autonomy, and mastery of a skill? (According to Duke professor and best-selling author Daniel Pink, these are the three primary drivers of motivation.)

Where do I picture myself in 1 year? 3 years? 5? 10? 25? 50?

What would be fun to do? What do I daydream about?

Which bad habit should I stop? What good habit should I start?

If a genie could guarantee I succeeded at x, what would x be?

If you can’t double the number of aspirations from before, you probably haven’t dug deep enough. Keep digging. The short term world loves to bury our aspirations.

Now What?

At the end of this exercise, you might end up with an absurdly long list, a list so long you couldn’t possibly accomplish it all in the foreseeable future. (I define the “foreseeable future” as five years.) If this happens, that is a good sign — it means you dug deep. To make things more manageable, take a minute to divide the list into aspirations you might reasonably pursue in the foreseeable future, and those for down the road. (Err on the side of optimism.) Focus, for now, on the stuff that can be accomplished in the near-future.

Now you’ve got a list that provides insight into what you should change, what you should stop doing, and what you should start doing.

Not One and Done

Remember, you cannot possibly sit down and unearth every aspiration you’ll have. Some will arise in the shower, others a year or decade from now. But the key is to look for them. The constant struggles are the ones most worth it.

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
— Stephen King

In a soon-to-be published piece, I look at what to do with this list. (Follow me if you’re interested in that.) For now, be pleased that you’ve done what so few do.

(This is based on a chapter from Long Term Person, Short Term World.)