The emotional arc for every college student seems to exist in a paradoxical state: On one hand, college is lauded as the best time of people’s lives, while on the other hand, college students seem to live in a state of existential dread about the future. This tension is created by the fact that college is essentially a transitional time in people’s lives. College students have one foot firmly planted in childhood, when the main concern in life is still school, while the other foot is in mid-air, charging towards the future. After all, college is supposed to be the time when people really pick what they want to do with their lives.

The looming question of the future seems to arise in every decision that we make. Is this really the thing I want to study? What can I do with a degree in this? Will I really make new friends after college or is my social life mostly downhill from here? Is this the last chance I have to pick up a new skill or hobby? (Maybe I should go to the next kayak club meeting?) Who do I want to be and how the hell am I going to get there?  

The most common way of discussing and dealing with this anxiety is to discuss career paths. If I can figure out my job, then I can begin to craft a vision of myself around that. It seems like, for many college students, if there is a specific path and vision of a career, then the big decisions made in college can be navigated with a greater degree of certainty and ease. I feel like I have heard people say something along the lines of the following a million times: “If I study computer science, get certain grades and get certain internships over the summers, then I know that I will be able to get a job that pays a good amount of money, has a workplace environment I like and is in a cool/hip city.”

This orientation toward college, however, follows a very odd temporal structure. Rather than beginning with things that happened in the past, or even the feelings occupied in the present, this orientation creates a futuristic vision of the self and works backward in time toward the now. This process of prioritizing a future self over a current one creates a massive amount of accompanying anxiety about crafting this future self.

Don’t read me as advocating that students should only think about the present. A student who doesn’t create this complex chain of projection has anxiety of a different sort, an anxiety of the present, rather than of the future. For a student like myself, who studies philosophy, there is not a clear path for me into the working world; there is no Silicon Valley of philosophy. Instead of spending every day fearing I won’t reach my goals, I spend every day wondering what the hell I am actually doing. Should I have chosen to study something that will help me more in a future career? Could my prioritization of what I am doing now really just be a form of naivete?  

Recently, I went to my older brother’s Friendsgiving event, which featured a series of post-college 20-something-year-olds who were all trying to make sense of post-college life. When this topic of conversation arose (namely, what the hell I plan on doing after college), it seemed that every person in the room quickly became an expert on the topic. All of my brother’s friends came from a place of caring, and they did genuinely want to share the knowledge they’d gained from their experiences with me. In this process of “helping” me, however, one thing became very clear to everyone in the room: The line between generalized advice and self-projection was thin.

In all fairness, the discussion we had was definitely thought-provoking and got me thinking about what other conversations I have had about career paths. I quickly realized that my critique, that people were mainly just guiding me into an edited version of their path, is the case for most conversations about career paths. After all, our society trains people to consider their career above all else, so what advice could people really give me that is beyond their personal experiences?

To further complicate the whole situation, this form of projecting is actually what students, like the earlier described computer science student, are looking for — a clear, replicable path to follow. College students will always think anxiously about their future and seek advice that can bring release from this anxiety, so maybe what needs to change is not the occurrence of the conversation but rather how we engage in the conversation.

Maybe students shouldn’t be concerned with what specific things people did in their careers to push them “to the next level,” but rather what life decisions people have made that felt important. The conversation should expand from discussing the minutiae of career strategies to something of the larger game of life these decisions are occurring in. Instead of asking for and giving prescriptions, we should all be discussing how our life decisions influence fluctuations in our anxieties.

Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at rrosenb@umich.edu.

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