College: The best four years of your life.

Have you heard this before? I have, plenty. We are set up to believe that these four years are the best of the best. Leaving school and entering a world more “real” than the one within university borders will lead us on an inevitable spiral downward. This isn’t hopeful thinking, nor is it at all realistic.

In a video on Stanford University’s YouTube channel titled “Stanford Open Office Hours,” two professors, Dave Evans of the Design Program and Bill Burnett of the Design Program, discuss this false idea that college is the best and life following only gets worse. They suggest that if we are to believe this, that will mean that at fifty or sixty years old, we will be wishing we were our twenty-year-old selves. We don’t want our young minds to make the ultimate decisions about our futures. Life is a process and it will take us years to really know what we want.

We have to work gradually to tailor our skills and reach our desired future. It can’t just happen in one neat construction of a four year academic plan. That sets us up to believe all we have to look forward to is a world of the mundane, set in a dull workplace, far worse than the lives we once had as undergraduates.

Evans and Burnett go on to talk about how some of the negativity attached to life post-grad comes from confusion with what we think has to happen while on campus. We fall into a trap while declaring majors and minors, finding our directed field and starting to discard any of our passions that don’t “align” with a given major. If someone has many different interests (let’s say music, physics and literature), they often choose one and assume the others cannot be pursued. There isn’t quite a clear thread between those three passions, so many just choose one and forget about the rest.

These misconstrued ideas that circulate in academic environments are something: careers and passions have to be distinctly identified in college or after years and years in one profession, the prospect of eventually switching directions is impossible. This causes us to fix our gaze on just one thing. We limit ourselves, which may lead us to keep jobs that maybe we once loved and then eventually lose interest in. In the future, if you find yourself in a career that isn’t fully suiting your interests, especially because those interests are constantly evolving, both professors suggest you have to do something in order to fix the problem. Evans and Burnett warn us: “You really can’t solve a problem you’re not willing to have.” If you identify that you’ve let something go that really wasn’t worth abandoning, identify that as a problem and move forward to fix it.

We’ve confused the idea that a lack of narrowing in on one interest is a lack of progression. We want to specialize, but in doing so, we often abandon other passions that aren’t relevant or helpful. Love for music, physics and literature might not seem to mesh. The neat, clear picture of choosing one often seems easier to adopt.

What do Evans and Burnett say to the notion of forward motion?

“Don’t try to decide your way forward, just do something.”

I’ve lived so little life to try to decide my way toward the exact place I want to end up. Or try to predict the person I’ll be when I get there. Or even worse, put myself in a place now to assume life after college will only get worse.

This past Monday, I had the pleasure of hearing filmmaker Issa Rae (“Insecure,” “Awkward Black Girl”) speak at the Symposium keynote memorial lecture in Hill Auditorium, and I found that what she shared paralleled some of the ideas from the Stanford video. When asked about her immense success, she credited her career to the idea of just going out and doing something that mattered to her. In order to pursue her love for the arts, she began asking her friends and family to participate in her films, and she quickly gained a following.

It wasn’t a matter of having a perfect plan or abandoning certain interests to fit the mold of what could be successful to the public. She just created art about real people and real things.

Someone said to me once that each day you’re doing one of two things — you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. As for me, I’d take future advancement at the expense of a coherent, neat life plan that revolves around one interest. If chaos and random interests are what carry me forward, I’m happy to say I can only get better.


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