January 22, 2016

You Can Be Anything...JK, No, You Can't

From childhood, parents and educators may have assured you of the open-endedness of your story. Encouragement is delivered by platitude, often via inspirational classroom poster: “You can be anything you want to be,” “You can do anything you set your mind to,” “You are destined for great things.” And for a while…perhaps even still…you believed it. But, of course, it isn’t quite true.
Image courtesy of Despair, Inc. (despair.com)

We all experience limitations. That's life. But it's important to recognize that limitations don't have to be limiting. They may feel bad, like the opposite of those motivational posters: "No!" "You Can't Do this!" "You fail!" 
But limitations are opportunities as well: opportunities to think more intentionally about what is working and where that might take you. 

Please don’t mistake this post for one of those cheap “you’re not special” rants that gets lobbed at your generation every few months. On the contrary, our argument is that you are TOO SPECIAL to get so lost in possibility or tunnel vision that you miss your purpose. Believe this, there is very real danger in being so preoccupied with a hypothetical everything (or one very specific something) that you miss a very real something in your path. 

Recently I met with a student who is on Academic Probation. After two consecutive term GPAs below a 2.0, he had come to believe that he simply wasn’t as smart as his family or he thought, and he wore this realization with a heavy sadness. We talked through his difficulties and the disconnect between his interests and achievements and the expectations of his family.

As an exercise, I asked him to look at his transcript as he would a stranger’s and tell me the story that unfolds. He carefully and thoughtfully narrated the decisions, missteps, and failures; he even identified the moments of success… but was quick to dismiss them.

I pointed out that if we removed all courses toward his intended major, his GPA would be a 3.25! That was not an accident and it was not because his other courses were "easy." Not surprisingly, at closer look, the remaining courses shared common themes in human behavior and motivations.
But what does this mean? And what might this mean for you?

Some advice not included on the motivational posters:

1. Stop diminishing your successes.  
Advisors hear it every day: We say: “ 'Wow, you did exceptionally well in insert course here!" The student replies: "Oh, yea, well that was easy.”
Any time you’re tempted to use that phrase, remember that someone has failed every course that Rutgers offers. Recognize and embrace your abilities as talents. Language is powerful, so consider saying “Oh, courses like that seem to work well for me” or “Thanks, that material was interesting. ” 

2. Know the difference between an ill attempt and an ill fit.
I failed PreCalc 115 in my first semester because I fell behind and couldn’t regain ground quickly enough to fix the mistakes I’d made. That was an ill attempt
Image courtesy of Despair, Inc. (despair.com)

I played basketball as a child because I was exceptionally tall for my age. I never loved the game, preferring to shoot hoops in the driveway, but I played because everyone assumed I should. As it got more competitive, I realized that no matter how much I practiced,  my height could not make up for my lack of coordination. Continuing those efforts wouldn’t have been courageous, it would have stolen time from the pursuits that did suit my strengths and serve me (and others) well. It was an ill fit.

If you’re uncertain of which “ill”ness you’re experiencing, come and speak with an adviser to discuss your experiences. Remember: YOU are the expert on your experiences; WE are the experts on your options and opportunities!

3. Dream big…ger. You’re not here to train yourself for your first job, nor can you educate yourself for a lifetime in just four years. Estimates indicate that your generation might expect to hold as many as 15-20 jobs during your employment lifetime. Can any major, in and of itself, prepare you for every position that you will hold in the future? Of course not. Your career may not even exist yet. But, use your time here 'on the banks' to cultivate yourself as a lifelong learner and seek experiences to build skills that will serve you and help identify your strengths. You are more than your major! 

It's hard to be here, right in the middle of your limitations, trying to figure out the road ahead. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. So we asked alumni to lend you the benefit of their insights from the vantage point of successful careers and lives. Many wrote to share their journeys and be for you who they needed when they were 'on the banks.'

Stay tuned across the semester for our guest alumni posts and more Froshblog reflections on the undergraduate journey!