December 14, 2019

Too Many Choices Leads to Lack of Career Direction

Alec Hansen '21 - Contributor

Leading up to quad break this fall, I was quite excited. I had a busy workload this semester and I was thrilled at the prospect of a four-day-weekend. Once it had finally arrived though, the power went out and I was bothered by the mundanity of having no work to do. Ordinarily, I could just binge Netflix, surf Instagram, or browse the New York Times, but with the power out and barely any service, I was cut off. 

It was Saturday evening of quad break and the power had already come back a day and a half prior. I was sitting in my living room doing nothing in particular. Now that I had WiFi again, I could easily have done any of a number of things. But as I sat there, I realized that the lack of WiFi on Thursday night was not what had bothered me. Here I was, with a car to go off-campus, the internet at my fingertips, and good friends all around me, yet I felt empty. I felt as though the work I had been doing all semester lacked direction and purpose. Sometimes I think ahead to when I have a full-time job. Will I feel this same lack of direction and purpose my entire working career? To find an answer to this question, I took a look inward.

It’s beginning to become cliche to bemoan the technology crisis and the resultant moral void of our generation. Depending on the person, the impact of the technological revolution may vary. But there’s something we all have in common, especially at a liberal arts college. We hear a lie that admissions counselors, proud parents and your friends love to tell: you can be anything you want to be.

Now don’t get me wrong; most college graduates today have incredible opportunities ahead of them in their adult lives. But this encouragement is, in many ways, a white lie. Sure, you can become anything. But what they forget to tell you is what you should become. This dilemma usually leads to a classic conversation. First, the question, “What are you going to do with that degree?” coupled with a nervous laugh, followed by the typical “I’m not too sure yet,” finished with another chuckle and the presumed adage, “That’s okay, you’ve got plenty of time.” 

But what do you want to do? Who should you be? Identity formation may be easier at a Christian college, where faith plays an integral role in crafting a student’s personhood, but identity and career are not the same. Because of this technology wave, current college students understand the rapidly shifting workplace they are about to enter. And yet so many students have no idea what it is they want to become.

Sure, you can become anything, but the reality is that we have been handed too much freedom. A list of careers comes attached to the blank check we’re handed, yet indecision can rattle even the most confident. We know we should be thankful for all the freedom we have, but unsurprisingly, that freedom is suffocating us. 

Barry Schwartz, in his book “The Paradox of Choice” suggests that too much freedom leads to too many choices. This beautiful liberty we so dearly prize belies an incredible lack of direction. Ultimately, college students are getting stuck in one of Schwartz’s four boxes of excessive freedom. 

The first is analysis paralysis. If you had to pick between becoming a farmer or a photographer, chances are, you could pick pretty fast. But when a career results test tells you a list of the 19 “best” job options, you might become frozen, unsure of how to narrow down the choices. If you are able to successfully winnow the field, Schwartz worries you’ll have anticipated regret. In other words, you’ll constantly ask yourself, “Will I actually be happy being a videographer? Or would I be happier in graphic design?” 

If you can work past that concern, you might regret becoming a videographer after you’ve been in the business for three or four years. “What if I were doing graphic design or layout? Would it make me happier?” Finally, even if you’re confident in your videography career, you might find yourself facing feelings of emptiness. You had expected to create short films that instigate radical social change; instead you’re making your 87th wedding video.

Schwartz is right. We have too many choices. And what we need most of all is a sense of direction. An increasingly globalized society will not trim down our possible courses of action any time soon. Where can we turn then to find that sense of direction?

Some might discover, in their quiet moments with God, the destiny awaiting them. Others may find it through journaling their feelings, passions, and dreams. Still others may take the counsel of a wise advisor and chase that career.

My solution came through maintaining commitment to a dream I’ve had since my freshman year. As I wrestled endlessly with where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do, I considered research and ultimately, teaching at the university level. It seemed an attractive prospect. Now, two years later, I’m still committed to chasing that dream. 

There are days where I question why I’m still pursuing this goal. I know that becoming a professor won’t fill my deepest longings. Yet there’s something fulfilling in knowing that despite the odds, I’m chasing a dream. I’m existing in the ‘here and now’ and moving forward simultaneously. My trajectory seems to aim toward something tangible and for me, exciting.

When I felt a deep void in my soul on that Saturday night of quad break, I ended up sitting on the couch for a while. I wasn’t able to snap out of the haze until one of my roommates suggested a walk in the woods. After a nice stroll around Coy Pond, I felt rejuvenated and my previous worries of emptiness were gone. And it was after that stroll that I realized: I’m not fulfilled by just my work or only my play. It’s the melody, harmony, and rhythm of each moment in life that filled my heart with purpose. Indeed, it is that very combination that will push me on to the end of my days.

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