Figure out your entire life now, please

After graduating college, you’re supposed to be thoughtful, try new things, and explore this astonishing world. But that can be a terrifying prospect.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A Smith College student participates in the workshop Getting Unstuck When You Don’t Know What’s Next on Oct. 1, 2019.

“What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That line from poet Mary Oliver, quoted in this week’s cover story, could be seen as inspirational – an exhortation to be thoughtful, try new things, and explore the breadth and depth of this astonishing world.

Or it could be utterly terrifying.

Consider Julia Sagaser. She is a senior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and this is what she told correspondent Stephanie Hanes in our cover story:

“I came to learn that a path doesn’t have to already be carved out for you, and it doesn’t have to be a linear one, with concrete steps. Once I discovered that those cookie-cutter paths are few and far between, and when they do exist they’re really illusions, that felt better. Because everyone is in the same place. It’s not like anyone is the weirdo who doesn’t have it all figured out.”

Think about that. Ms. Sagaser is essentially admitting that she thought it was her job to have her entire life path to happiness figured out before she even left college. That is terrifying.

This week’s cover story is about the explosion of courses on college campuses that help students “design” their life. The cynical could roll their eyes at this. But there’s a different way of looking at it. In a society that is built around setting up children to succeed (a good thing), how is it that kids learn to fail?

This, it turns out, is one of the key elements of “life design” classes. The stigma around failure is such that these classes seek to impersonalize it, casting life choices in the terms of laboratory experimentation, where failure is an acceptable part of the learning process. Otherwise, the prospect of making the wrong choice – of “failing” – can become debilitating. Some 41% of 25- to 34-year-olds cited “fear of failure” as the primary reason for not starting a business, up from 24% in 2001, according to a Babson College survey. 

“Millennials are interested in anticipating obstacles rather than stumbling through them,” notes a 2017 article in Inc. magazine. Social media has heightened the tension over failing, the article adds, through the obsession with both presenting a perfect self-image to the world and avoiding the intense public shaming that can come with missteps.

But there are signs of a shift. Some 80% of Generation Zers say embracing failure at work can make them more innovative, according to an EY survey. 

The real lesson, Stephanie suggests, is a nascent recalibration of success. As education has moved from an overt religious mission to a secular undertaking, it has focused increasingly on individual measures of success – inadvertently reinforcing the fear of failure. Yet, even when “successful,” self-interest “tends to make people feel lousy,” she says.

Maybe what is really going on is a recognition that academic achievement is not what education should be all about. Life design basically asks: Achievement in service of what? And maybe that’s a question educators and society should have been asking all along.

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