The school year has been smooth sailing so far. You’ve got nice friends, you like your professors, and you landed a few hours per week working at the student union. For the most part you’re feeling good … other than a few nagging thoughts stuck in your head that are, truth be told, kind of stressing you out. See if any of these common college concerns rings a bell—and then keep reading for some expert advice to help you get unstuck.
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1. I don’t know what I want to do!
Spoiler alert: Nobody does. We’re all making it up as we go—even after college! Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life (based on Evans’ popular course at Stanford University), believe we can get really good at making it up as we go if we can get comfortable purposely designing our life as we go.
Evans calls it odyssey planning. He explained it to the host of the Hidden Brain podcast on NPR: “We have people come up with three completely different versions of themselves, and then [we ask them to] go try [out] some prototypes in each of them.” (The prototypes are simply some actions they take in real life to test the ideas out—a concept the authors borrowed from their previous design careers in Silicon Valley.)
As a student, for instance, you could come up with three different career choices that interest you, and what you think each path would look like over a 5-year period. You’d then create ways (prototypes) to explore them—maybe setting up some informational interviews or meetings to speak with people in the field. Or you could find an internship or do some volunteer work in the area that interests you.
What you realize is that there’s no one perfect life you’re destined for, but rather opportunities for a number of lives. You get to iterate, experiment—prototype, the way tech designers do—to try out a few and choose which one to pursue.
2. What if I’m wrong?
That’s good, says Mark Manson, author of the The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Instead of looking to be right all the time, he says we should be looking for the times we’re wrong, as that opens us up to the possibility of change. He also reminds us that change isn’t something to be afraid of (though it’s often something we resist because of a perceived risk, or because of fear). Some of the most difficult and stressful moments of our lives also end up being the most formative and motivating. Want proof? Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He was also fired from his first two jobs before inventing a few world-changing devices.
“We shouldn’t seek to find the ultimate ‘right’ answer for ourselves, but rather, we should seek to chip away at ways that we’re wrong today so that we can be a little less wrong tomorrow,” says Manson. That’s how we grow. Taking a misstep is still taking a step in the direction you want to move in.
3. I’m not sure what the problem is!
That’s a surprisingly common problem. Burnett and Evans have seen many people waste a lot of time trying to solve the wrong things. You first have to figure out the actual problem before you can solve it. But it’s not always clear what that is.
For instance, Evans began college as a biology major. He was unhappy and struggling in classes and it was clear to everyone—except himself—that he needed to change course.
“Deciding which problems to work on may be one of the most important decisions you make, because people can lose years (or a lifetime) working on the wrong [one],” say the authors. In Evans’s case, he lost two and half years because he was “so focused on the what-he-had-in-mind problem that he never looked at the real [stumbling block]—he shouldn’t be majoring in biology.” He’d made his decision based on an interest in the underseas explorer Jacques Cousteau and an inspiring science teacher, but he never explored the field of marine biology (see prototypes above) before diving in.
4. Where do I start?
Mark Manson recommends that if you’re unmotivated (or afraid) to make a 360° change in your life, do something—anything, really—and then harness the feeling you get from that action as a way to jump-start bigger change. He calls it the “do something” principle.
After floundering for about a year after graduating college, Manson realized he needed a strategy to get his new business started. He recalled some advice he once got from his high school math teacher: “If you’re stuck on a problem, don’t sit there and think about it. Just start working on it. Do something. The answers will follow.”
It worked, and he discovered that motivation doesn’t have to be inspired by a major, dramatic life event. Any action, however small, can initiate big change. In fact, action, inspiration, and motivation are part of a continuous loop, and you can jump in anywhere.
5. I need a win!
Some days, we just need something, however small, to go right. Take Admiral William H. McRaven’s advice and start each day with one task you’ve completed. Something as simple as making your bed. In his book Make Your Bed, McRaven makes the argument that by completing this task each morning, you’ll begin the day with a sense of accomplishment. That feeling will motivate you to take on another task, and another one, and so on. “By the end of the day, that one task completed will turn into many tasks completed,” he said in his 2014 commencement speech for the University of Texas at Austin, which sparked the idea for his book. “And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”