Two temptations of advice-giving

By Scott Schimmel

“What are you thinking about doing after you graduate?”

“I don’t know— what do you think I should do?”

Recently, I overheard this conversation at a coffee shop on a local college campus between a student and a professor. I leaned forward to hear the professor's response, and I was hoping that he would be able to speak into this potentially future-altering, dramatic moment with wisdom, confidence, and inspiration. Unfortunately, the professor began down a confusing tirade of platitudes, cliches, and disconnected parables, and I knew that when I tuned out after a couple minutes from my eavesdropping that the poor student was likely more confused than ever.

When working with young people (or anyone) as it relates to helping them plan their future, there are two temptations:

  1. Encourage them to explore their opportunities to “do anything they set their mind on”
  2. Narrow down to a specific path based on empirical evidence like test scores, grades, or assessment results

The first temptation is to encourage a student to think freely, expansively, and encourage them to imagine a future wide with options and opportunities. We want them to know that there are great possibilities out there and they can chase after a number of options. There’s great truth underneath that sentiment: that someone who is smart, works hard, and pursues something wholeheartedly can make great strides and perhaps become successful and happy. The danger is, however, that young people need more direction than that, and they suffer under the curse of too many options. 

The second temptation is to try a preemptive strategy to discourage potential floundering and decision-paralysis by making a plan to march towards a specific destination or career path. We have data to observe, either through grades or test scores, that reflects talent, acumen, and aptitude for particular subjects- so why not lean on them? The danger here is that we would steer young people to pursue subjects or careers on limited information. Those test scores say that they were able to be successful from an academic perspective, but doesn’t speak to their hunger, curiosity or desire to pursue those with their life. Read more about our opinion regarding test scores here.

What is infinitely more helpful as an approach involves a series of open-ended questions that helps a student connect important dots for themselves:

  • What have your grades and test scores indicated in terms of your natural talents?
  • Which class(es) do you find yourself enjoying the learning process?
  • What kind of work environment do you tend to prefer or thrive in?
  • What sorts of problems irritate or motivate you?
  • What do you feel like your best contribution is?
  • What do you want your life to be about?
  • What's most important to you?

We have found that there can be simple clarity on the other side of a process of self-discovery. In our program, we invite students to explore what a sober dream for their life could look like— a combination of aspiration and grounded reality. Young people need hard questions in a safe environment of feedback and affirmation in order to get clear and confident about next steps for the past. 

What have you found to be the most helpful?