Recently, I listened to an interview with Spike Lee where he talked about his childhood and college experience. After discussing his early love of poetry, theater and music, Lee asked his interviewer, Alec Baldwin, "Do you know who are the biggest killers of dreams?" Long pause. "Parents." Ouch—that one hurts! While my kids are a long way from college-age, consider that message officially received.
I also see many parents encouraging their kids to dive into known, stable careers in order to protect them from struggle and lifelong hardships. It’s clear it comes from a place of love, through a lens of their own challenges making ends meet. By contrast, that was not Spike Lee’s experience. He was supported by his parents with acknowledgement, respect and prompting to go farther in his love of the arts—even when his parents didn’t know if it would offer him stability or a solid foundation for his future. This freedom planted the belief that it was possible to make something of his unique combination of creativity, passion and grit.
Lee’s powerful advice strikes me as I watch my friends, colleagues and clients send their kids off to college this August. Here are 3 ideas to help you continue on the path of encouragement as you move one foot off the cliff:
1. Their careers haven’t been invented yet
A former colleague and friend told me her son’s college addressed all of the parents with this statement on day one of parent’s weekend. It both blew me away and was absolutely true for my career. A year out of school, I fell into a new career as a "Web Producer." Being a Psychology major, I had no idea such a thing existed…because it didn’t. At the beginning of that career, I used to talk about my love for inventing my job every day. It was thrilling. If I had known it was impossible to predict the career path I would choose in school, I know for certain I would have been less stressed about choosing that exact right path and perfect major that would set me up for success. Instead, I switched my major five times and drew more from my elective classes (chosen for pure joy) in my career than from any of my multiple majors.
2. Deeper self knowledge and awareness will give them an edge
In this climate of over-achievement where many kids in schools will get top grades, working hard is of course important, but high marks are not the end all, be all. A student’s ability to experiment and uncover passions and channel a curiosity to figure out what makes him or her different instead of the same will be key to breaking through the pack. By reflecting on values, strengths and passions early and often, students can learn a skill I emphasize in my work with mid-career professionals—authentic self-promotion. They will also have greater clarity in what opportunities to pursue—and even create!
3. Relationships are paramount
It goes without saying, the knowledge gained on a variety of topics (dare I say, any) is an important component of college. That said—I will go out on a limb here with an opinion that—a focus on learning how to build professional relationships and the network of relationships built in school is as (if not more) important than the curriculum. The more your almost-adults know how to nurture relationships with fellow students, alumnae, professors, Career Center faculty—the more ideas he or she will be exposed to about possible career options and the wider the networking community to call on when he or she is ready to get out there. As someone with zero family career connections or capital, I learned early that to jumpstart my career, I needed to build relationships myself—and that practice helped me get up and running with a wide network that is still an area of my career bringing me the most support and pride.
As a coach, I have the benefit of seeing the aggregate experiences of my clients’ college and career paths. I see clients thriving who went to city and state schools and schools with little to no name recognition. I see those who went to ivies and are struggling to get their careers off the ground (until we get them digging deep!). And then there are those whose college failures bare no resemblance to their professional success (so don’t worry there’s still hope if your student is not yet where you thought he/she would be). When you send them off to do their best, to learn about the world and themselves, remember that often it’s the life skills, the practice of being an independent, empathetic, resilient, flawed human that will prepare them the most for the paths that are theirs to create.