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18 and Life to Go (or, Some of What I Wish I’d Known at 18)

Right now the world may look different than it ever has before. There are new possibilities, but new worries as well. You’re experiencing some freedom that wasn’t yours previously, and with it added responsibility, expectations, and maybe even stress. Some of that might be external, with family, friends, and teachers asking what your plans, your goals, your next steps are. And those same questions are probably bubbling up inside you as well. Maybe they find you in quiet moments alone, in the shower, or as you lay awake at night. It seems urgent, doesn’t it? As if your answer is required immediately to advance to the next level. And you desperately don’t want to be stuck here forever. You feel the need to act, to do anything, to make something of yourself. These impulses are natural. They’re a normal part of development.

college student

Just ask anyone twice your age how they felt at 18. If they’re honest they’ll probably describe a mixture of uncertainty, fear, boredom, and excitement. They may also tell you the hard truth: that some of that never goes away. It’s tempting, and easy in fact, to look at people older and more successful than you and believe they have it all figured out – as if their opportunities, their choices, and their career had just been one win after another. The reality for most of us is really just the opposite. Everything that follows, all the words you’re about to read, are an attempt at explaining that. And not in hypothetical theories or extreme scenarios that really don’t do you any good. No, these are lessons learned from real-world experience. It’s the same world you’re living in, just a little further down the path.

Here’s the first bit of truth: nothing is permanent. This may come as a shock, or maybe you’ve already found it to be true in your own life. Regardless, the sooner you embrace this the easier it will be to remain unaffected by the changes in your work and personal life. That nagging, “what do I do next” feeling you may be experiencing now will not last forever. Take a lot of comfort in that – it’s a promise. You’ll take a chance, a step, or move in one direction or another and find an answer that, like a chain reaction, propels you forward in some unexpected way. Or you’ll find a dead end. Don’t worry. That’s not the end. It’s just a chance to pivot, to explore another possibility. Lean into that without fear. Whether it’s a job interview, a major, or a skill you’re trying to develop, the feelings of hesitation and indecisiveness will eventually be replaced by contentment, confidence, and maybe even a high degree of certainty. That’s good. It’s also a fine time to be reminded that nothing – including this – is permanent. Even in your lifetime, just think about all the ways you’ve changed. Is it any wonder that your dream job, the degree you’re interested in, or your vocation would change too? Of course it isn’t. The reality is that you will be planning your next move the rest of your career. As you meet new people and experience more of the world, as you learn and grow, so will your aspirations and objectives. If nothing else, let that take some of the pressure off the present moment. Take a deep breath. This is just one of millions of moments.

Now that you may be feeling a little more relaxed, prepare for your mind to be blown just a bit. It’s entirely possible that the job you’ll spend most of your career doing does not even exist yet. Yes! How crazy is that? Once upon a time our cultural ambitions were largely constricted by where and to whom we were born. Most boys followed in their father’s footsteps, taking over a family business or assuming a similar role as the men in their family. Women married young and raised children. It was unusual to do anything different, which is why the ones who did eventually made history.

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We now live in a world of constant innovation. New products, technology, and ways of communicating are being developed all the time. That movement shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s only picking up speed. If there’s a field or area that interests you, pay close attention to it. Follow the leaders, the trends, and find ways to add your voice to the mix – even if you’re only blogging about it at first. The key is to remember that how or where you begin doesn’t mean it’s where you’ll end up. Especially when that job, career, or industry may not have even been created yet. Better yet: you may be creating it yourself without even knowing it.

With that in mind, if you’re considering college, know that the degree you decide to pursue isn’t ultimately the most important thing. This may contradict everything your classmates and advisors tell you, and obviously you’ll have to pick a certain direction or track at some point during your college years. The likelihood that you’ll pursue, or spend years working in, that field, however, isn’t guaranteed. You may simply enjoy studying history, psychology, or English. No matter where you focus, commit yourself to a skill. It may be learning to effectively communicate – either out loud or in writing. If so, invest your time and energy there. Perhaps the idea of therapy doesn’t move you, but applying those organizational principles in the workplace does. Learn what it takes to manage other people and let your job double as a laboratory. Observe everything – even yourself. You may intuitively understand the ones and zeroes of programming and find satisfaction in that work. Perfect. Exercise that muscle by surrounding yourself with likeminded people and code something. In all of these scenarios the value is in doing the work. Textbooks are wonderful, but they’re no substitute for action, for hands-on doing. This isn’t “follow your passion” nearly as much as “let your purpose lead you.” Be intentional.

Finally, keep all of this in mind. Stay focused on what’s true. Be humble. Remain steady. That’s infinitely easier when everything feels like it’s going your way, but it’s most valuable, most necessary, when you feel uncertain or lost. Ask for help, and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Learning takes a lifetime, but only if you’re wise. You will start, and you will stop. You’ll change course repeatedly. That’s part of life. Just keep going. You’ll be fine.

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