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A note to recent college grads: Get over yourselves

June 1, 2011 | 12:52 pm

Graduation

In his May 30 column, the New York Times’ David Brooks makes a suggestion to recent college grads: Change your self-interested state-of-mind before you enter the world and get sucked into a “decade of extreme openness” navigating “diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches.” Here’s an excerpt:

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-SPAN these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

The problem with looking too far inside yourself, he argues, is that you miss what’s going on around you. “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life,” Brooks points out. “They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life.”

As someone plowing through that decade, I’m compelled to share my story.

After graduating from a women’s liberal arts college in 2006, I taught English in a lakeside high school in northern Italy, which is to say -- I lived the dream for a bit. 

Once I got back to the U.S., I was faced with a gaping, ominous void known as “the rest of my life” and considered filling it with everything from a PhD in cultural anthropology to a master’s in art business. 

The liberal arts experience is empowering while you’re in school, teaching you to think and write like never before. You’re told you can do anything, which sounds great until you realize there are an awful lot of options out there.  And choices are not always liberating. 

I eventually made a decision that feels right and, although I’m too young to dispense advice to people only four years younger than I am, here it is anyway:  

As Brooks says, “The purpose in life is not to find yourself.  It’s to lose yourself.”  But I’d like to add to his point.  You do get a choice about where you get lost so that you might figure out what your dream might be and move toward it. Take the calculated risks and detours that arise along the way.  You’ll be amazed how much your life can change if you let it.    

Happiness rarely surfaces when you’re searching for it. To quote Brooks again:

The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most.

Set other goals and forget about finding happiness. It might surprise you when you least expect it.

Stop referring to it as “the rest of my life.”  The present only carries that much weight if you stop moving forward.   

And when in doubt, make a plan, take a chance and do it again.

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Graduates from various institutions take part in the Toss Your Caps: Philly Graduates College. Credit: Matt Rourke / Associated Press Photo

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