“I wish for my son the exact same thing that I wish for my daughter,” I said in response to a question posed by an audience member at a WITI event that I spoke at last spring. The woman asked me ‘what I hoped for’ for my daughter. “I want them to have the confidence to follow their heart, early.” From the get go. No deferrals.
This exchange popped into my head two times this week; in reading a quirky piece about transition a’ la college students post-graduation, and in visiting a inner city middle school in Roxbury, Ma.
Even Artichokes Have Doubts, Yale Daily News, September 30, 2011 by Marina Keegan was written from the hallowed halls of the Ivy League at the beginning of a student writer’s senior year. I had never heard of Keegan prior to this week. The article caught my eye as I read about the author’s fatal car accident on Cape Cod just days after graduating from Yale University. It seems she was an inspired writer, headed to my beloved New Yorker magazine. Her piece was provocative…and lengthy. Very New Yorker-esque.
While Keegan laments the deferral of passionate pursuits amongst college grads, I was taken back by the universality of her points. Keegan deftly uses a recruiting invitation from McKinsey & Company to pose a question to readers: ‘why (do) 25% of Yale graduates enter the fields of finance and consulting post graduation?’
Vignettes follow. She speaks with Carib a struggling artist who is toying with the question of “(do) I love art enough to be poor.” Or Mark, an aspiring musician, who laments on his way to a hedge fund job,”(music is) not exactly a field with an application form.” Or Jeff who dreams of reforming public education but plans on heading to finance in search of smart people and transferable skills.
Four universal barriers to transition make an appearance in Keegan’s piece. Every experienced any of these?
a) Fear or aversion to sloppiness: Why do we retreat to clean, sometimes soul-less, lines? “Searching is messy and confusing and we’re often afraid of dealing with that mess.” (Even Artichokes, Yale Daily News)
b) Readiness or credential adequacy: Ever question the readiness of your skill set prior to embarking on a new path? Says Kevin Hicks, former dean Berkeley College, Yale ’89, who was interviewed by Keegan for her piece, “there are a half-dozen more life-affirming ways you can acquire those same skills (than going to finance or consulting), including taking a class at night at a junior college while you do something more interesting….too many seniors march lemming-like towards it because everyone else seems to be doing it, and it’s the next opportunity for extrinsic validation. If McKinsey says you’re okay, you’re okay.” Is seeking an “ok” seal of approval a barrier only at the college level?
c) Financial. Not sure barrier is fair here. I remember exiting HBS with a substantial amount of debt. I deferred my dream to start my own company until the debt was paid off. I was lucky. I got it paid off quickly and resumed by travels towards entrepreneurship. Ever let financial hurdles stop you?
d) Prestige. Keegan refers to ‘external validation’ often. Novofemina’s Summer Book Review #9 Working Identity noted that transition barriers can be “our pre conceived notions about viable work.” Keegan says of finance and consulting, “it will make us feel like we’re still successful.” (Even Artichokes, Yale Daily News)
From my perch decades beyond graduation it feels easier to weigh these trade offs. Keegan wonders “why we are conditioned to accept the ready-made established process” instead of searching for that which we’re passionate about? I wonder?
Last Friday I got back on a bus mid morning. I’d spent the prior few hours at the 26th Annual Promising Pals Breakfast at the James P. Timilty Middle School, Roxbury, Ma. For those unfamiliar with the geography the Timilty operates in a community distracted by violence, harsh economic realities, and few kids heading to New Haven, CT for a university experience. I was there to meet my pen pal, one of 400 kids who participate in a year-long program targeted at introducing role models to those desperately in need of an alternative viewpoint.
It dawned on me as I started a conversation with a very sharp woman who sat next to me on the bus. I hadn’t asked my 6th grader about her dreams. She’d taken me for a tour. We played a few games. We talked. I met her friends. I met her sister. How could I have not asked? Was I stopped by the barriers all around her?
If I had the opportunity to respond to the WITI lady again I think I’d say,”I wish for my children to be blind to barriers. Completely sightless.” There are a few that matter, like financial. If I’m any example, even those can be managed.
Experiment. Follow your curiosity. Dream big. And only give barriers a parting glance in your rear view mirror.
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