Woonsocket Call

‘What are you do­ing after grad­u­a­tion?’ Please don’t ask

Awk­ward ques­tions aren’t nec­es­sary

- By RACHEL SIM­MONS Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post Sim­mons is the Lead­er­ship De­vel­op­ment Spe­cial­ist at Smith Col­lege and the au­thor of “Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Be­yond Im­pos­si­ble Stan­dards to Live Healthy, Happy, Ful­fill­ing Lives.”

It’s that time of year when many new and soon-to-be grad­u­ates come to dread a cer­tain ques­tion.

“Ev­ery per­son you meet will ask you what are you do­ing, what are your next steps, what are your plans for right after,” said Leigh John­ston, 22, a newly minted Smith Col­lege grad­u­ate. It’s the “older gen­er­a­tion” who queries, she added. Her peers, not so much. They know it’s a touchy sub­ject.

Earn­ing a de­gree, col­lege stu­dents tell me, is no longer enough. Now, you need a starter life to go with it, be­fore you’ve even moved the tas­sel on your grad­u­a­tion cap. “That’s what is re­garded as suc­cess,” John­ston told me. “Know­ing ex­actly the next step right away.”

As a cul­ture, we con­fer re­spect to those who have plans. To have a plan is to have in­ten­tion, pur­pose, vi­sion. Peo­ple with plans ap­pear to be go­ing places.

Mean­while, look up the antonym for plan and what do you get? “Disor­ga­ni­za­tion.”

That hardly seems fair. Shouldn’t a new grad­u­ate get the chance to re­flect and breathe? Doesn’t an un­sul­lied hori­zon al­low for serendip­ity and won­der? Yet most young adults have been trained, from their ear­li­est years, for a highly struc­tured life of next: Ele­men­tary to mid­dle to high school, then col­lege. SAT to col­lege ap­pli­ca­tions. Ju­nior var­sity to var­sity. In­tern­ship to job. These guardrails may be re­stric­tive, but they are also safe: With goals pre­de­fined, the anx­i­ety of un­cer­tainty is stripped away.

Over time, young adults may de­velop stel­lar ré­sumés but get lit­tle op­por­tu­nity to live with the dis­com­fort of not know­ing what’s next. Their mus­cle to man­age it is all but at­ro­phied. When the path dis­ap­pears after “Pomp and Cir­cum­stance” is played, and they are left to make their own way, many re­mind me of the car­toon char­ac­ter Wile E. Coy­ote: skid­ding off the cliff, hang­ing sheep­ishly in the air, sus­pended for that split se­cond be­fore plum­met­ing to the ground.

How did we get here? Just un­der a decade ago, ele­men­tary schools be­gan in­tro­duc­ing “re­cess coaches” for stu­dents who be­came ei­ther list­less or un­ruly with­out struc­ture dur­ing their free playtime. Over the last 30 years, more and more chil­dren have been driven to and from school, in­stead of al­lowed to walk in­de­pen­dently. A child­hood spent in­creas­ingly in­side, un­der su­per­vi­sion and on screens has turned freestyle, out­door play from a nat­u­ral ap­ti­tude to a skill we need to teach our chil­dren.

First-year col­lege stu­dents now spend the fewest hours so­cial­iz­ing freely – with­out a plan – than any gen­er­a­tion that came be­fore it. Many say they feel guilty when they have free time. The “I plan, there­fore I am” mind­set is the by-prod­uct of a cul­ture in which busy­ness is a proxy for self-worth. And a cul­ture that wor­ships at the al­tar of plans will pro­duce chil­dren that find in­ter­mis­sions, lulls, or even 10-week sum­mer breaks just short of in­tol­er­a­ble.

Anx­i­ety about not hav­ing a plan al­most al­ways masks a deeper fear: What to do when there is noth­ing to do. With­out an over­sched­uled Google Calendar, there is ver­tigo. An ob­ses­sion with struc­ture over sub­stance will lead some young adults to fill in the blank with some­thing, any­thing, so they can check the box of yet an­other ac­com­plish­ment.

“It makes you fake what you think sounds like suc­cess, but isn’t some­thing that I care about,” Carter, a new col­lege grad­u­ate, told me. Talk­ing to older adults about his plans, he con­fided, “I’m say­ing things that are not even true.”

So how can you sup­port a young adult in tran­si­tion? In­stead of ask­ing what’s next, try ques­tions like: What is some­thing that ex­cites you about life after grad­u­a­tion that you’re in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing? You might get to hear a story about want­ing to bike cross coun­try or read a novel – true pas­sion pur­suits, in­stead of faked ones.

Some young adults use plans to avoid the hard feel­ings that come with an end­ing. In­stead of tak­ing time to grieve the close of a mean­ing­ful high school or col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence, their at­ten­tion is trained on the next goal­post.

Re­mind the young adult you care about that plans can­not – and should not – im­mu­nize us from the raw feel­ings that come with scary change. It’s okay and nor­mal to feel a con­fus­ing mish­mash of emo­tions: Fear, in­se­cu­rity, jeal­ousy, sad­ness, and anx­i­ety, among oth­ers. Feel­ings are not the bug of a tran­si­tion; they are the fea­ture.

John­ston still feels anx­ious, even though she is head­ing to Tai­wan for a Ful­bright in Au­gust. The move de­vi­ated from her orig­i­nal plan and is fol­low­ing 10 weeks off, so Leigh felt un­moored, and squirmed through the first un­pre­dictable week after grad­u­a­tion, then caved and made a list of goals. “The chance to process every­thing is scar­ing me,” she told me. “I have gone 21 years non­stop, home­work un­til mid­night, meet­ings all day, I have not re­ally had time to process things and think. The time to re­flect is not some­thing I’m re­ally used to.” On her list: Read 10 books. Get a sum­mer job. Ex­er­cise ev­ery day. Go fish­ing and catch a fish. Ex­plore Bud­dhism and prac­tice com­pas­sion.

Joseph Camp­bell, the writer and Sarah Lawrence pro­fes­sor fa­mously known for urg­ing read­ers to “fol­low your bliss,” wrote, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to ac­cept the one that is wait­ing for us.”

Young adults who learn to live with un­cer­tainty gain last­ing wis­dom: Namely, that we are in con­trol of less than we think, that every­thing is al­ways chang­ing, and that we have much to be grate­ful for in the present mo­ment.

For a gen­er­a­tion as anx­ious, lonely and de­pressed as this one, this may be a skill worth ac­quir­ing.

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