What do you do? What do you want to be? Which college will you go to? What is your plan for the future?
Depending on where you live and what you think you want to do, these questions can start very early. Sometimes, as early as age 10! No that’s not a typo. (Want to be a doctor in India? The program may be shorter than in the US. But the road starts earlier. You better save up for extra coaching, tuition, and get top grades good enough for the right high-school classes as early as 15. And then you better get into the right medical college the first time around at 18, because second chances are few to none.) The pressure is intense, early, and you can find yourself making decisions that set the tone for the rest of your life.
For better and for worse, things are quite the reverse in the US. Choices are more fluid, things are far less permanent, and with rare exception, you are not fated to be the sum of actions taken in your mid to late teens. However, we say “for better and for worse” because nothing is without consequences.
The downside of the US higher education system is clear enough. In the US, it’s fairly normal for college students to not declare a major until junior year but some of us never get past the choices the US offers. And for those can’t make up their minds, the freedom of choices can translate to a lack of traction where nothing gets finished – not the major, the degree, the coursework, or the work experience. And with the cost of higher education ever rising, this can be actively bad for your finances – nothing like getting to your third year of college only to find out that you need a couple more classes to declare a particular major!
But by and large, the upside serves most people well. Because the whole idea of college here is to find out who you are, what you’re capable of, what choices are right for you, and how to actually make those choices. That last part, making choices, is crucial to becoming an adult – because you are free to make choices, but you are also responsible for them. And it’s certainly not unheard of to stop and start again. It’s also not unheard of for people to take longer than four years to get a degree. Dropping out isn’t permanent, and changing course isn’t impossible. Which is good for the many colleagues who got their third year of pre-med before they realized being a doctor was their parent’s dream, not theirs. Or for that matter, for the doctors who stayed in medical school but realized they’d much rather care for the babies than deliver them. Choices mean you aren’t locked in for life. And when you’re 18, that’s a very good thing.
Because the fact is, the vast majority of us don’t have a clue what we want to be until we’re well into our 20s, had a bit of life experience, worked, maybe travelled a bit. For that matter, a lot of people get well into adulthood before they realize their one singular purpose, that one thing they were put on this earth to do. (Some of us never really figure out that single purpose, and do just fine. And a great many of us do just fine, and keep wondering “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” That’s the dirty secret of adulthood no one really tells you, by the way! )
So about those questions, and those questionable choices. Keep finding out what you want to do, intern in the field you’re considering, be willing to fail, understand that failure is sometimes the key to bigger successes, and that sometimes life just has other plans for you. Case in point, this much celebrated letter from Duke University to a basketball player. Duke is a sports powerhouse, but clearly, life had other plans for Michael Jordan.