The 1 Question I Wish I’d Been Asked In College

January 29, 2016  |  

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I played by the rules: I studied hard, got good grades, graduated from college and landed a good job at a good company. Initially, I was hungry to climb the corporate ladder and quickly earned a reputation of being a top performer. But deep inside of me, nothing stirred. The mundanity of each work day slowly gnawed away at my soul, and my heart swelled with regrets. My disenchantment with corporate America became apparent when, after being in the workforce for a couple of years, I bumped into an old college friend who asked me with worry in  her eyes, “What happened to you? You used to have more life.”  

I wasn’t the only one though. Among many of my college friends, an existential crisis of sorts was well underway. “Is this it? Is this what life is? How come no one told us it would be like this?” we’d hopelessly ask each other. Forefront in our minds, we wondered what the hell we had spent our time doing in college. Wasn’t college, after all, the place where we were supposed to have found ourselves, and the place that should have prepared us for the real world?

The two most pressing issues on my agenda in college were: what am I going to major in? and what job do I want after college? These are important questions in the college experience, and I have a hunch that many other students also ardently set about to answer these two critical questions as I did. However, I believe that the way in which these questions are framed — very direct and very narrow — constrain the mind to a limited number of predefined majors and job descriptions: predefined possibilities. We fixate so much on these two questions in college that it’s often at the expense of other more insightful and useful questions.

Like sheep, college students are corralled into majors which ultimately govern the sub-set of jobs that they will be eligible for in the future. We ask 20 year olds to put on blinders by declaring one major (maybe two), instead of encouraging healthy experimentation during the time of life when the stakes are relatively low. It’s, therefore, not hard to imagine why Albert Einstein said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

What I wish I’d been asked in college

Young adults need guidance and what I wish I’d been asked by a career counselor or professor is: what are you curious about? A question that invites the person to whom the question is asked to engage deeply with themselves — with no boundaries. Curiosity, unlike the elusive concept of passion, is digestible, familiar and doable. The grandeur of passion can overwhelm many but curiosity gives us permission to experiment and see what sticks. People can handle curiosity. Curiosity, should we dare to follow it, guides us through self-discovery, and if we pay attention, can lead us to fulfillment.

I wish that I’d considered my higher education more holistically beyond the confines of the curriculum and had investigated my interests with as much fervor as my school subjects, through informational interviews, books, podcasts, volunteering and exploring ideas in a practical (not theoretical) sense. Had I done that, I think that I would have learned more about the variety of things that I could be good at, picked up more practical knowledge along the way, and made better informed decisions about my career. I highly doubt that I would have landed in the predicament that I saw myself a few years after graduation.

What now?

At least we can find solace in the fact that it is never too late to tap into curiosity. So for me and many of my cohort, begins the onerous task of pulling ourselves out of the pit that we’ve inadvertently dug ourselves into. Some of my friends are trickling back to business school to re-brand themselves with an MBA in the hopes that that will set them on a more enjoyable path. As for me, if it weren’t for following my curiosity for storytelling I likely wouldn’t have tried my hand at writing or have started a podcast with my sister. These projects energize me and fuel my hopes for a meaningful and purposeful career.  A comment on an interesting article I read on Psychology Today (The Problem with “Follow Your Dreams”) resonated with me and I think is worth sharing here, “Each day, every person who has dreams and desires should take steps, big or small, to FOLLOW THEIR DREAMS intelligently. A commitment to do so is an act of great self-respect.”

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