Advice for A College Graduate
From one millennial to the next.
We are culturally conditioned to grow up wanting to be something. Our entire scholastic lives, we’re asked innocently, almost facetiously, “What do you want to be be when you grow up?”
As we grow, the question becomes less innocent. The facetious factor is removed, and high school is weighted with different versions of that same question: “What kind of college are you trying to get into?” “What do you want to study?”, and still, even, “What do you want to be?”
We are raised to consistently move up the ladder and continually strive towards being something.
High school becomes about getting into college, and college is about getting a job, and, well, getting a job is what life is about, right? Getting a job is the top of the ladder. It’s the answer to the lifelong question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
As a college graduate, or even someone approaching graduation, the question is as heavy and real as it’s ever been: “What are you going to do when you graduate?” “Where are you going to work after graduation?” and, as if expense is somehow correlated to quality of life, “So what are you going to do with that expensive degree you got?!”
This question — in all its forms — sucks.
It’s like that aunt you see once a year at holiday gatherings that tries to catch up with you. She’s got the best of intentions, but nothing meaningful ever comes from the conversation, and you end up mostly feeling like you’ve somehow fallen short.
The problem with this question is that it has a limited set of answer choices, and when we are asked this question, we are confined to those (and only those) choices as acceptable responses. It pigeonholes us, and we turn from being ambitious, aspirational dreamers to becoming pessimistic realists the more and more we squish our dreams into those pigeonholes.
We have to think about the way we ask questions. How we ask determines the answer we receive.
For example, the standard pre-college question, “what do you want to study?”, does not allow for any responses outside of the fields that are offered to study in college. Like a multiple choice test-question, you are forced to choose a response from a pre-determined set of answers.
You might try and respond with “I want to study how to write books that sell”, but someone will narrow your answer for you and say, “Oh, so English or English lit maybe?” Or you might be brave enough to say, “I think I want to study art and travel and learn how to be a freelance artist,” but someone will, again, inevitably box you back in and say, “So you’ll study art and maybe minor in business?” Even if we answered the way we wanted, we’d be corrected into the “right” answers, the pigeonholed answers. It’s natural, but it’s not the only way to think.
When someone asks you after college, “So what are you going to do now?”, (and someone will ask), responding with, “I’m not sure,” is most definitely not among the multiple answer choices.
When we get asked, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” we know by now the “right” answer would sound something like this, “I’m going to work with a product distributor as their southeastern area sales rep.” A “wrong” answer would go something like this, “I’m going to see if I can get my blog to take off a little, and probably work at a local bookstore for a while to see if I can meet some other young aspiring authors.” That’s not on the multiple choice list.
The real problem with the question is the word “what.” This is the word forcing our responses to fit inside a specific little box of answers.
What if we asked a different question, one that allowed for different answers, a question much more essential to our lives: “who do you want to be when you grow up?”
When people asked me growing up what I wanted to be, I always said, “a teacher”. And then I “grew up”, became a 5th grade public school teacher, and quit after 1 year with the deepest sense of hopeless shame. I looked around at all of the other choices (doctor, vet, lawyer, dentist, businesswoman, secretary, realtor, graphic designer, marketing analyst, advertiser, journalist, sales rep, etc etc) and none of those looked appealing either.
What was I supposed to do?
I felt like it should somehow be simpler than this, to be 22 and working. I kept asking myself, “What do you want to do, what do you want to do”, and I’d run through all the options and still come up empty; empty because my long list of things I wanted to do never matched up with an existing career; empty because I was asking the wrong question. It wasn’t until I started asking myself, “who do you want to be, who do you want to be” that the answers flooded in.
I want to be someone who helps people move into places of new, rich, deep knowledge. I want to be a part of people’s journeys. I want to be someone who can write and create every single day. I want to be approachable and thought provoking. I want to be a person who has the opportunity to meet new people all the time. I really just want to be me.
I was continually coming up empty for 2 mistakes many of us make straight out of college (or during):
1) We ask ourselves the wrong question.
2) We think our careers have to already exist.
Try asking yourself a different question, a question that allows for different answers, answers not on the multiple choice test, and give yourself some freedom to imagine a career. Build one yourself. It does not have to already exist. You can carve out that place and path at anytime you want. I cannot promise security or ease, but I can tell you where the search for those two things leads, and you don’t want to go there.
Instead of asking yourself, what you want to be, ask who you want to be.
What type of person doing what type of things?
Why do you want to be that way?
What qualities do you want to embody?
What values do you want to represent?
When I did this myself, it always came full circle back to me just wanting to be me. That was the most peaceful answer ever. I dreamed of doing exactly what I wanted on a daily basis, and still living the lifestyle I wanted for myself. I kept wondering why this had to be a dream. What was stopping me from being who I wanted to be, and getting paid for it?
It might sound all woo-woo-y, but we all have something to give to the world. There is something so unique and specific inside all of us that the world needs, and all we have to do is ask the right question to discover and release that thing.
We are wired for connection. It is our primal instinct to desire a relationship of some sort with some person (usually several) besides ourselves. This is how I know for certain that we all come into this world with something inside of us that the world needs. That is our purpose, to give this thing — our truest selves — to the world.
It just so happens that the search for this “thing” can be incredibly frustrating and difficult, but if you are living an authentic life, one that is so purely you it could never be mistaken for another, you will find it. You will find that “thing” that only you have, and you will do it in a way that only you can, and the world will demand it from you.
I know, it sounds like witchcraft, but if you truly want to live a meaningful (and fun) life, you might have to try a little witchcraft. If you crave a day where instead of doing your job you are being your job, you will have to push past your fears and doubts, into strange places and cross boundaries you never knew you’d set for yourself in order to discover the overlap between who you are and what you do.
So go do it. Ask who you are, not what you are. The what will follow the who. Make this quest a priority, for there is nothing more important than being yourself. There is only one of you on this entire planet. How could anything else take precedence? The world needs you to show up. The career, the money, the happiness- it will come.
Who are you? Who do you want to be?
Originally published at bullshit.ist on February 17, 2017.