The career question for young adults

The discussion and debate over career paths for young adults is a never-ending one. Jeff Selingo published an article in the NYTimes about this topic recounting a story that we hear regularly today in 2016 but that happened in…the 1800’s. With all of the uncertainty of career-focus, studying for the right career or diploma-relevant-to-career-path, Selingo nailed something I try to tell every parent: what matters is how students navigate their college years (less so than where they attended, what they majored in, perhaps even the grades they attained). Or rather, the onus is on you, students. And, that’s a beautiful thing. You can control this.

Yesterday I went to meet a young Norwegian “friend” for coffee here in Auckland. I say “friend” because I met Paul in a parking lot almost two years ago—an empty parking lot—both of us having showed up for a yoga class on the small island of Waiheke that was never going to take place. We had an immediate connection. We stayed in touch and finally met up again over a year later as he was on holiday here in NZ visiting his mom and sister. I met with Paul and his mom for coffee, to talk about nothing in particular, but you can imagine that career—he is 24—and “plans” came up. Paul grew up in Norway, went to an international school there and went on to study History at St. Andrews. He can articulate very clearly why he studied History—he is passionate about it—and how those studies are relevant to the “real world” in terms of career path and life. (I could and maybe will write another article just on that; I’m a huge liberal arts fan.) He now works for an international policy consulting firm advising the British government on climate change aid relief projects in parts of Africa and spends time in Sierra Leone. (He has bright blond hair and blue eyes and said he fits right in in SL.) Paul told me he received basically “no guidance” from St. Andrews on career opportunities or options, that they had no idea his sector or job he eventually landed really even existed. My argument in “defense” of these career offices—which, yes, could do many things to become more effective for their students and community (again, another article)—was to point the finger in another direction: the onus is really on the student to figure out who you are, what drives you and what you want to “try” when you’re starting out your career. Get to know the career offices, be proactive, ask questions, seek. And, then try. And, hopefully, you’ll stumble a bit and perhaps even fail at a few things and learn more than any “job placement” could have taught you about yourself, your interests, your strengths and your future. Paul’s mother told me that she avoided when bringing up the kids in Norway the “curling culture”—that is the idea of sweeping away anything that stands in their way to create a smooth, flawless immediate path for them. She said, I did the opposite and didn’t move a thing from their paths. So, you can see why Paul fits right in in Sierra Leone.

But, for most parents and families, this is a terrifying reality of life: the future of their son or daughter and the need for reassurance and almost certainty that a solid career will lie in their son’s path. I think it’s very human, very natural, to have these feelings and doubts and anxieties and I hear of them every single day. Yes, usually it’s the fathers, but oftentimes it’s both parents: we would like black and white reassurance that our son will have a solid career ahead of him. My clients and families are not American. They do not live in the US. Most of them will want to or will eventually attend university in the US. They do not have US passports. Most of them don’t really know which country is “home” for them. They have the same pressing stresses and concerns that Selingo recounts American families have, and then some beyond.

Just three days ago I had two parents ask me if they could meet with me, without their son without their son present. They live in SE Asia and are expats to the country they reside in. This is a kind family, loving, thoughtful, respectful of one another and of our work together. Yet, when we got on our Skype call, I noticed the father was a bit on edge, more officious than normal, getting right to his questions. “What is the meaning of this whole liberal arts education?” “Please rank for us the liberal arts institutions you’ve suggested to our son.” “Why should our son consider a liberal arts education over a research institution?” “What is the ROI of a liberal arts education?” “What is the ROI of attending a university we have never heard of?” “What kinds of job opportunities will our son have attending any of these institutions?” And the questions continued in this vein. These are not new questions for me to hear or respond to, all legitimate in form and reason, all impossible to answer with very black-and-white responses, just the type of response these anxious parents are seeking. My job is to provide guidance and reassurance while citing the realities and obstacles of life and related to their son. I cannot tell his future. But, the conversation took a turn as it came to a close.

I had another student waiting for me and asked if we could discuss one more question and follow up later with another call. The father took a deep breath and said, “I have one final question for you right now. What should we or what can we be doing, my wife and I, to help our son right now in this process?” But, as he pronounced “process” his voice trembled and went up a note, he looked down at his papers, his wife had a stricken look on her face. And, her husband began to sob. He was so stressed by the pressures on him as a father and what is facing his only son—an expat in a very competitive atmosphere who cannot identify where his “home” might be and with so many opportunities, those of which are so “foreign” to his wife and he—it was overtaking him.

As a fairly (very?) emotional person, it took my all to hold it together. His wife by this time was also crying heavily and I thought the last thing they need is for them to see me joining in. It took some time for this father to regain his composure—his apologies profuse, surely he was not expecting this to happen and did not want it to happen yet I reassured him I’ve seen it all and this is a very natural situation for parents to be in—and I saw that he needed to say something before I answered his question. I told him to take his time. He did. And, what he said was this: “We just care so deeply for our son and think we are doing all that we can to make sure he has a bright future but we just don’t know.” And, I think this is what every parent I work with fears and deals with. There is no simple answer but there is a clear one: let him be his own person with your love and support and he’ll succeed. Maybe he’ll be, as Selingo states, a Wanderer, maybe a Sprinter. Maybe a Straggler. Parents can’t control that and shouldn’t. Life is really about trying, testing, risking, and being true to who you are. The earlier a person realizes this, the stronger (and more “successful”) he will become. The curling analogy won’t work for life. That’s why it’s a game—curling—and not something that can be played off the ice.

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