I’ve had a lot on my plate recently, with IB classes and SATs and ACTs and College applications. I don’t feel like I won’t make it through, but I just feel a lot of niggling annoyance in the back of my head that seems to feed on my motivation and my desire to excel, and the problem I have is that I don’t know whether after I make it through this time I’ll be where I wanted to be or not. How do you know if you’re doing the right things to get to where you want to go? – S.S., age 17
Not knowing if your choices will get you where you want to go is a basic, unfortunate fact of life, man. It’s hard, yes, but everyone faces it, even if they fake it and pretend they don’t. It all comes back to the fundamental truth that we absolutely cannot predict the future. We can only take educated guesses and have faith that after taking the next step, the necessary next step will appear to us.
Seriously, in about five minutes, an asteroid could hit Earth and we all die, just like that. We have no idea. There’s something to be said for having a general sense of what you want to accomplish before you die, but getting too specific and then gripping too tightly to that preferred future reality is just a recipe for disaster. There’s a fairly famous saying in the world of mindfulness meditation: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” We’ve got to learn to loosen our grip and lighten up on ourselves. Otherwise we’re going to get pissed off at ourselves, which leads to getting pissed off at other people, which makes life a lot more complicated and crappy.
Another big issue here is that if you’re in the middle of college applications, that probably means you’ve been sold the line throughout your childhood that you have to “get into a good college so you can get a good job and then you’ll be happy.” Not at all true. There’s way more shades of gray there than you realize. Some of the most successful men in this world either never finished college (Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Elon Musk of SpaceX/PayPal, Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic, etc.) or went to colleges that weren’t Ivy League. So part of your journey into and beyond college will be to loosen your grip on that belief too. It’ll be hard, because a lot of adults are stuck in that mindset (including your parents, most likely), so they won’t understand what you’re trying to do by going your own way. But tough it out. Fulfillment only comes from forging an authentic path. That takes courage, self-knowledge and determination.
The most important thing you need to do during these next few years in college is be clear about a) what interests you and what you tend to do when no one is forcing you to, and b) what problems out there in the world nag at you and don’t let go. That’s the key to fulfillment and eventual monetary success: Find a problem out there and solve it using skills and talents that invigorate you. If you do that, then you’re way ahead of the game.
Lastly, the following article should be required reading for anyone on the verge of finishing high school. It’s by Paul Graham, and it’s called “What You’ll Wish You’d Known.” Print it out, get a pen or highlighter, and read it slowly and carefully a couple times through. It’s got a lot of wisdom in it that should put you at ease a bit in this time of your life where you’re jumping through all these hoops that adults are telling you are best for you. Some are, many aren’t. Feel free to hold steady to an internal sense of direction that flies in the face of some of this adult pressure and unsolicited advice. Good luck out there.