Let's (not) Get This All Figured Out

Oftentimes the advice we start hearing at a young age is along the lines of "figure out what you're going to do with your life". Historically, this well-intentioned sentiment has been passed from one generation to the next, but it does not take into consideration that a full two-thirds of the students currently in K-8 will have careers that are not even invented yet as of 2022. Technology has never been as rapidly changing as it is in this current moment, and it's not showing any signs of slowing down. More than ever, we need to adapt and evolve with the times in what skill sets we are emphasizing. Once we figure out that the goal should not be to have it all figured out, we are well-positioned for open mindedness and continuous growth that keeps pace with change.


 

Generally speaking, June is considered a pretty fantastic time of the year, especially if you happen to live in a part of the country that has clearly differentiated seasons as we do here in the Lehigh Valley (most of the time). June tends to be that always fast-moving bit of time when the last of the cooler weather has come to its annual end, and an entire summer still lies before us. A blank canvas waiting for each of us to create the memories of outdoor time with family, friends, and neighbors enjoying adventures (no travel required). Like an appreciating asset, these times and memories will become more valuable as we get older.


As much as June and summer vacation from school go hand in hand, so does that annual rite of long-anticipated passage: graduation. With these freshly minted graduates in mind, I write this column, specifically the high-school and college grads. If you, dear reader, are not one of these graduates I speak of, then perhaps after reading, you will feel compelled to forward this along to a friend or family member proudly representing the Class of ’22. (Or do it the vintage way: print it out and mail it!)


I'm fortunate to have nothing but the most fantastic recollections of my high-school years, especially the accompanying summer vacations. All of them spent in Western Massachusetts, where I was born and raised. That said, I also clearly remember that the common theme of conversations with adults towards the end of high school often including some version of: “Have you figured out what you want to do in the future?”

Standard variations included:


You need to figure out what you want to do in life.


Let’s figure out your future plan.


We need to get a plan figured out for a career.


You figure out what you want to do with your life yet?


You get the picture, slightly different lyrics to the same tune. In all likelihood, it’s one you may be familiar with yourself from either side of the conversation.


The spirit of these future-focused conversations can run the whole gamut of the emotional spectrum. Casual banter of a well-meaning aunt or neighbor at your graduation party simply searching for low-hanging fruit for a minute of small talk. An (often overworked) guidance counselor doing their level best with hundreds of kids that he/she is tasked with helping put some semblance of a future oriented plan together for. An exasperated parent that is growing increasingly convinced that unless sleeping late and scrolling on the phone suddenly becomes an in-demand, well-paying career, there is no evident Plan B skillset revealing itself.


While the exact phrasing and the mood of the conversation may vary, I think it’s safe to say that in almost all cases, the person initiating the “figure it out” dialogue is doing so because they genuinely believe to be successful in life… that’s what you do. Figure out your life plan. Ideally, as soon as possible.


As I write this in June 2022, it’s been twenty-eight years that my fellow Class of ’94 friends and I crossed the outdoor stage for a handshake and high school diploma. (that’s the 18-year-old me wearing the Spiderman tie in the below pic)


Of the many things life and experience have taught me since that day, one of the most valuable lessons was figuring out that having everything figured out should not be the goal in life. This mindset runs contrary to much of what we are taught in the classroom, and it’s not a theme that ends in high school. In my experience throughout college and grad school, the emphasis remained slanted towards figuring out a plan now that you would be adhering to into perpetuity.


A fundamental flaw in looking at the future through that lens is that we are using a very old-fashioned method of thinking for future planning. Never before in history has technology been so rapidly and dynamically evolving, and the reality of the matter is we are imploring today’s young people to lock into a plan that does not always factor in the critical skills of adapting and pivoting with change. While we do not know what the future career landscape will look like, we can most assuredly know it will be much different than now. According to the World Economic forum, 65% of kids currently in grades K-8 will ultimately work in careers that don’t yet exist. Think about that for a moment. Two-thirds of the future workforce will be doing jobs yet to be invented, and much of the time, we are still using the same ‘make your future plan’ playbook that we have always used.


Whatever our chosen paths are at any age, constant curiosity and the desire to continuously learn and improve upon our unique talents and interest are vital in helping us move from good to great in whatever areas we dedicate our attention and focus to. As the expression goes, ‘passion is the genesis of genius’. We naturally spend the most time on things we are interested in; spending that time makes us get better at it. Knowing how the world is changing and how our interests and skills can be applied as a career is a daily pursuit; there is no finish line. When we have a fixed mindset that we have any particular area of our ‘all figured out’ we’re essentially closing down shop for any additional learning and growth to occur.


To be clear, this is not suggesting a life plan of simply letting the winds of chance carry us around life and whatever happens, happens. More to the point, I place great value on the importance of setting goals and having big ideas in mind, it’s the act of attempting to build a rigid and linear plan that can often lead to disappointment and unfulfilled aspirations.

Evolving interests, passions, skills, experiences, friends, professional influences, unexpected success, and failures are all variables that ultimately are potent forces that propel us forward in life. Progression does not need to be in a straight line, and the best strategies are often the most dynamic and continuously revised. Being open and receptive to the ever-changing landscape of possibilities is a skill set that requires mental training and repetition. The future and its opportunities have never offered a more panoramic view of exciting new directions to explore. To see that view though, we mustn’t close the drapes thinking you already know everything looks.


Here’s wishing all the graduates a sincere congratulations. Remember that each day brings a fresh page to write more of your life story on. Keep a close eye on your pen as there will always be others who want to borrow it.