As I sit here at my desk, sipping a cup of really strong coffee, listening to Tom Petty, what I’m thinking I’d really like to do is pour you a cup and just chat about how college is going. But since you aren’t here and I’m not there, we’ll have to make do with this note.
If you’re like most students I know, when you got your acceptance to your college and started sharing the news, you heard something like this from lots of middle-aged and elderly people: “Oh my—what wonderful news! I’m so very happy for you. This is going to be a wonderful time. You know, the college years are the best years of your life!” I’ve shared this story hundreds of time with collegians, and have almost never met a college student who hasn’t heard this line—and heard it a bunch of times! When I ask, “How does it make you feel?” it starts out fine. At first it’s pretty terrific. “Wow—college is going to be so cool!” Then I ask, “Is that all?” Then it starts to dawn on them. “Maybe this isn’t so terrific. I mean, if these are the best years and they end when I’m like twenty-two . . . then what!?” The people saying this to you are forty-five or fifty-eight or seventy-two and they still believe the college years were the best years of their lives!? Are they saying that life looks like the picture at the top of this article? Am I destined to half a century of boredom and decline after I graduate? These are mature people who love me—they must know, right?
I don’t think so. The college years are indeed wonderful. They’re unique years for most people in terms of the learning, the lifestyle, the friendships, and the constant variety (which most people call “freedom,” by which they usually just mean “lack of routine”). College is great, but it’s just one important chapter of life. And that’s the point—it’s part of a complete life.
It turns out that what you think life is all about, what it’s for, how it’s to grow and evolve over time are among the most important ideas in your head. How you make decisions about what to do with your life, and how you assess how your life is going, all depend on the picture that you’ve chosen for what life is supposed to be. Now is a great time to be choosing those ideas carefully, as the wise teacher suggests in the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, chapter twelve. Most people choose in their twenties how they’re going to feel about their lives in their fifties and sixties, and never realize that they’re doing it. There may be no more important thing that happens in the college years than how you begin the task of thinking about how to think about what your life means. It takes work and intention. If you don’t choose your ideas, others will be happy to select them for you.
The purpose of life is to grow and to increase all our life long. Paul assures us that he is “sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1). Moses’s final word to God’s people as they entered the promised land was “choose life,” which Jesus affirmed in his coming that we might “have life and have it abundantly” (Deuteronomy 30 and John 10). So, what’s up with this “college is the best years of your life” thing? Well, I suggest the best thing to do is to go find someone who’s twenty or thirty years out of college and is saying that their best years are now. She might say, “Wow, college is great. I hope you have a good experience there. I loved it. I mean, I sure wouldn’t trade being fifty-eight for being twenty again. Fifty-eight is the best! I’ve worked really hard to earn the privilege of being this old and the benefits are so worth the wait. Be sure and enjoy your twenties. Pay attention to this time you’re entering, but rest assured—the best is yet to come.”
Go find that person. Find a handful of them if you can. You may have to probe a bit, because most of them won’t be noisy about it, but they’re out there. Find out what makes her tick. Find out what he thought about when he was your age and how that’s changed. Figure out how different people grow their view of “life” and notice how that view informs the way they choose, and act, and experience their lives. Plant life-giving, nourishing ideas in that brain of yours and your heart will be ever-grateful.
Expand your worldview and find a point of view, and don’t settle for one that anticipates years of decline beyond your youth. Dream not only big but long as you imagine what you’ll do with your one wild and precious life. And try these books written specifically to your situation: Sharon Parks’s Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, and Steve Garber’s Fabric of Faithfulness.
Get a new arrow—get out, not in
Most new college students have worked awfully hard to get in. Just get in to a good school and all will be well. Life has been focused inbound—just get in—but eventually that has to change. At some point, life is not about getting in, it’s about getting out. Thinking about life beyond college (actually, thinking about life, period) is much different than being focused on the singular goal of college entrance. Sure, you can renew the “just get in” approach by focusing on grad school (or the job, or getting married, or whatever), but that’s just a delaying action. Put the pointy part on the other end of the arrow.
Point out to life, not in to college. During college, don’t live like you’re still applying to get in. Live like you’re there and you’re preparing to head out. Life is like live television: this is it, now. What I’m suggesting is actually a huge shift in perspective, and it can make a world of difference. (Check out the animated cartoon to Alan Watts’ sage counsel on this matter at http://www.neticons.net/music_life/).
Ask people about what they do and why
I spend a lot of time talking to people about what they’re going to do with their lives—their vocation, their calling. The religious term for it is discernment. There’s nowhere near enough room here to go into discernment adequately (you might start with the book Listening Hearts, by Suzanne Farnham et al.), but I do have one suggestion. Talk to people in careers and lifestyles which interest you. I am constantly amazed at how rarely students do this. Here’s a conversation I had with a bright, engaging, faithful young woman during her junior year in college:
So, what are you thinking about after college?
I’m really torn between being a lawyer and a teacher.
Really—those are pretty different. How’s that decision going for you?
Terrible! I’m just not getting anywhere!!
Wow—how long has that been going on?
Three years—the whole time I’ve been here at school.
Well, when you talk to lawyers, what are you hearing, and when you talk to teachers, what stands out to you?
I haven’t really talked to any.
She was talking to her friends and getting lots of sympathy but almost no help. Oh, and did I mention that her dad is a lawyer and her mother is a teacher? I’ve had similar conversations countless times, and it breaks my heart. There is so much indecision that really has no real chance of progress because there is no meaningful data. Artful discernment depends on finding a grounding in the issues, and the more embodied and real that grounding is the better. That means talking to people. Ask them to tell you their story and what it’s like in their work. Sometimes this process is called information interviewing, but don’t let that term throw you—it’s just talking to people.
In order to make the kinds of decisions you need to make in college, like selecting your major and what initial direction you want to take in your career, you have to get off campus. You can’t address all of college’s questions in college. It’s not that hard to talk to people; it’s just hard to get started. The good news is that you’ve got a cell phone and so does everyone else, so call and ask someone out for lunch.
There’s so much more to talk about, like when your major matters to your career and when it doesn’t (lots of times it actually doesn’t), or whether taking classes is a good way to discover your interests (is your personal epistemological style of discovery cognitive?), or why you ought to pick electives more for great teachers than great topics (great learning is better than the right curriculum), but we’re out of time. I guess we’ll just have to have another cup of coffee another day.