In America, we place a lot of value on our work identities. When you meet new people, the question asked after “where are you from?” is “what do you do?” The ironic thing is that even though work identity is so important here, our society does almost nothing to help you form the identity. In high school, you’re told you can do anything and that the world is your oyster, but there aren’t many opportunities (besides sports, maybe) to explore different talents and interests. Despite the lack of explorative opportunities, you’re expected to know what you want to do for the rest of your life at the ripe old age of 18 when you enter college, as if you won’t be a different person by age 21 when you graduate. The limiting explorative pattern seen in high school is replicated in college as you’re required to choose ONE major (and maybe a minor) and follow ONE program of study in order to get your degree. You can’t take whatever you want in college. Even a “university studies” major requires certain classes. Then, after 17 years of schooling (grade school and college), it’s time to go into the work force. You’re finally done with education. So you think.
Even though you’ve got a degree, for whatever reason you can’t find a job. Your six-month grace period is over and Sallie Mae is after you for loan repayments. There are no more financial-aid refund checks, and the bills gotta get paid. So you take a job wherever you can find it, even if it has NOTHING to do with your major or doesn’t require a college degree. Some end up working in very “humbling” positions, like in a mall or waiting tables. If you do get a job related to your major, it’s far from the most ideal position or it isn’t what you thought it would be. How else would you know what it was going to be like? It’s not like they prepare you for that at all in school, but that’s another issue. In addition to all of this, you STILL don’t have enough money to pay all your bills and you’re STILL living check-to-check. So after all that hard work, and all the juiced up, fanciful stuff you were told about the power of your degree, you’re unhappy and want out. You then consider going BACK to school, hoping that the 2nd time will be a charm and you’ll end up with the right degree and a better job. Some people come to this decision while still in their 20’s, others later in life. Those who decide this later have an even more difficult time because now they have children and mortgages and have to live on a student’s income (or lack thereof).
And lord forbid you mature or change at all and desire something different one day, because you can’t just up and switch careers when you feel like it. You have to figure out how to transition and how you’re going to sustain WHILE you transition. Not to mention holding your breath and hoping it works out.For a society that focuses so much on work identity, it’s pretty darn inflexible when it comes to that. The workforce (and your bills) doesn’t have patience for any personal changes or growth.
So what advice do I have for incoming college freshman? Well, the most I can tell you at this point in my life is try your hand, if you can, with different interests that you might have. Multi-task as much as possible. If you have no idea what you’re good at or what your interests are, ask yourself questions like “what kinds of things get my attention?” “If I had no limits or nothing to stop me, what would I do?” “If I had my way, what would I have or do?” Start there. Hopefully, that will help. The more I learn about surviving this process, the more I will share, and maybe we ALL will survive a little better.