In This Post-High School World, A New Chapter Filled With Anxiety and Excitement

It’s been interesting spending time with my school friends the past few days. There are just a handful of times in our lives when we truly start a new chapter: a major career change, marriage, kids, and graduations from high school and college. I would argue high school graduation is even more meaningful than college because you leave home for the first time. Given all this, our conversations have been reflective and at once reminiscent and forward looking. Grateful and proud of all it took to get to this point, but excited about the next 18 years even more. Emotional about the deep relationships formed that may soon weaken and ultimately end, but excited about a substantially larger pool of interesting people to meet in college and beyond.

One of the strongest sources of stress for many of my peers, I think, is that question many of us never answer: What do I want to do with my life? Or more specifically: What do I want to major in at college? What career do I want to enter? What am I good at? What am I, dare I use the word, passionate about?

It’s odd that high school graduates have to think about these pressing questions so soon but it’s not really surprising: the stakes are high to be "successful" and everything is accelerated.

I am blessed that these questions don’t concern me as much — sure, I still think about them, as I have many years ahead of me, but I have a pretty good sense of what I’m really good at, what I suck at, and what really interests me. So, I have it easier than some, but this doesn’t stop me from giving advice (to others or myself)!

I would argue it’s an equal blessing to be totally clueless. No matter how much I try, I am seeing the world through my developed lens and stated interests and strengths. I will try hard to be flexible and allow myself to change, but it will be difficult. The totally clueless person is a benign sponge, as ready to "try" environmentalism as investment banking. Why not?

Recent high school graduate Lindsay Eierman emailed me a few months ago and since then I’ve been reading her Xanga blog — she seems like a really interesting and well-written woman. In one of her posts she says,

While driving tonight I realized once again that I have no idea what I want to do with my life. And that is a scary thought.  I do know that I want to:
-help people
-travel the world
-read everything
-love deeply
-enjoy my career

For me, this is not "scary" at all: it’s brilliantly beautiful. She’s starting with a set of broadly defined values and wishes. Discovering what you care about can take years…for good reason. Lindsay — until then, you have a cornucopia of possibilities!

Conversations about the future take on added stress at this moment in our lives because the rules are changing. People who were king of the hill at high school can’t adapt to the new status quo, and stumble. Indeed, high school style popularity is effectively worthless in the adult world. When you stumble, you start to doubt yourself and the accuracy of your own gut, the single most important radar for what your true calling is.

It’s a fascinating time to be 18.

8 comments on “In This Post-High School World, A New Chapter Filled With Anxiety and Excitement
  • “It’s a fascinating time to be 18.”

    Very true. I just graduated as well and I’m glad I know what I want to do with my life and I’m glad I’ve been able to already begin pursuing those goals.

    On the other hand, I’m also trying to keep myself open to new ideas and interest because you never know what may happen. Things could change so I want to train myself to be more open and flexible.

  • Quick comments from The Old Guy (TM):

    1) Graduating from college is much more of a transition than graduating from high school. College isn’t that different from high school, especially if you went to a place like UHS. But work is way different from college.

    It may have been different in the old days, when folks grew up in one place and never left home until they went off to college, but those days are long gone.

    2) Not knowing what you want to do is a GOOD thing. The person you are at high school graduation is probably very different from the person you’ll be when you’re (God help you) 30something.

    If you THINK you know what you want to do, you’re likely to make choices that will commit you to that path, like studying biology and going to medical school, only to find, 10 years down the road, that you don’t like being a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker.

    If on the other hand, you sample a wide variety of interests and passions, you’ll have a better chance of being in a position to pursue your true calling when you finally discover it.

  • Chris — thanks.

    We agree.

    1) Most people have traveled and left home much more than I have. And most families are far more mobile than they’ve ever been, so “roots” somewhere is a much weaker concept than it was 50 years ago I would argue.

    I’m an anomaly. I’ve lived in the same neighborhood in SF for 18 years and the most time I’ve spent out of SF is a week (last summer’s 3 week gig in Zurich was the longest ever).

    Even still, I’m not sure the college to work transition is 10x more different than high school to college. For example, youth are exposed to a ton of corporate America while young. Many students work part time during college, while they don’t HS. Many students have student loans and thus learn all about finances. Many students are living in apartments, cooking, going shopping on their own, etc. Some students fuck themselves up with little consequence from any “authority”; in the real world they can fuck themselves up too. In HS, they’re sent to counselors and mommy and daddy. The day to day routine (work, eat, sleep) seems remarkably similar in college and real life, whereas HS it’s not nearly as proactive.

    2) I agree it’s good, but try telling that to a kid who doesn’t know what he wants to do! Most people (parents, others) look favorably upon someone who jumps into a track and for the next 10 years show clear career progression. They look less favorably to the person who volunteered at a non profit for a year, taught English in Indonesia, worked at a TV station, and then interned at a law firm. I, of course, like the latter example (at Comcate we just hired a guy who started out climbing telephone poles). And for the first several years out of college the emphasis unfortunately seems to be on what others think, not what you think / want to do.

  • Not having a clear idea of a career was one of the factors that made me not attend a four year university right after high school.

    College is obscenely expensive, and I wasn’t going to ask my parents for the money, or take out any loans, until I knew for sure I had found something that I could see myself doing.

    So, I attended a community college *gasp* and it ended being a blessing. Sure, the work was pretty easy, perhaps a bit too easy, but I got great grades (better than I ever got in HS) and I had the ability to take a couple days off here and there and visit a campus w/o any great consequence.

    Unfortunately, I think that too many kids are pushed into going to college, when they might not even need/have to in order to earn the qualifications to do what they want in life. Many fields pay well and don’t require a degree (e.g. nursing)

    So, until the student population declines colleges will continue to raise prices; part of a reason why I am looking into freelance corporate writing as a means to earn extra cash that I can both spend and save–and hopefully continue to do so once I’m working, so those student loans won’t sting quite as much as they can once I’m done!

    That is, of course, assuming my novel doesn’t pick get me an agent and a publisher–because if that happens, it’ll be another big drama all together!

  • i finally stumbled across your post tonight after being gone for two weeks and having to sort through hundreds of emails…so sorry for the belated comment.

    anyways, thank you for your kind words regarding my similar cluelessness regarding “the future”. i am finally content with not knowing what lies ahead of me…and hopefully that lack of knowledge will make life even more brilliant 🙂

    i’m completely jealous of the life experiences you get the chance to have with your trip. thanks for sharing your stories with us!

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