Thursday, February 4, 2016

Purpose: There is no substitute

Here's the heartbreaking story of "Anna" (not her real name), who wandered through college, a year of graduate school, and law school--all without a clear purpose.

As Anna explains in the first essay, she has a deep intellectual curiosity. She had the idea that's what college is all about: learning, exploring your curiosity, expanding your horizons, and achieving personal growth.

These ideals have long been advocated by institutions of higher education. And Anna appears to think that's  the way it always has been, or the way it should be.

These days, Anna appears to be [understandably] quite bitter about the fact that nothing turned out the way she thought it would. And she's not alone.

The vague, unstated promises that you will get a good job if you go to college and get good grades turned out to be nothing more than vapor. As with most hot air, such promises are intangible and ephemeral--no matter how attractive they may appear at first glance!

Even a child knows that chasing vapor on a beach will leave you standing at the oceanside, staring wistfully into the emptiness. Chasing promises about future returns is a similarly useless endeavor, especially if everyone else is doing the same thing!

How did we get to this point? How does an entire generation grow up believing a crock of BS?

That's a good question, but a moment's critical thinking should reveal that it never could have been anything but BS! If everyone goes to college, then everyone will have a college degree...and the degree therefore will not be a factor that hiring managers can use to discriminate between job candidates!

Educators, whose jobs depend on bringing in students who pay tuition, encourage critical thinking--but interestingly, they almost never encourage critical thinking about whether school is worthwhile!

The job market is just that: a market. As in any market, job-seekers have to fill a need and provide value to someone, or they'll have a Sisyphean struggle simply to land a job!

In the third link, Anna laments the competitiveness of the field of law. I'm not sure why she seems to have expected the field of law to be friendly and cooperative, but she apparently got an unpleasant lesson in how markets work...

So, what about you? Is higher education worth the investment of your time and money?

Well, it depends on what you want to do, whether or not a degree is required--AND how likely you are to get the job you want. Always consider the law of supply and demand!

Here's an example: if your goal is to be a philosophy professor...well, there just aren't a lot of open positions in that field. If you're committed to that goal, you better be ready to spend 16 hours a day reading and writing, from the time you enter college as a freshman, until you graduate with your Ph.D.!

If you don't work your fingers to the bone, write and publish and attend conferences and e-mail luminaries in the field and do everything you can to establish a name for yourself, someone else with better credentials or more impressive accomplishments may well get any open tenure-track positions--instead of you!

If you're going to go into a competitive field, you better be competitive yourself! Don't find out the hard way, like Anna did, that you can't get a job doing what you want to do, and you aren't prepared to do what it takes to earn a job doing something that will pay the bills.

The only way that I can see to get around this dilemma is this: love your field of study so much that you'll even put up with things you don't like! That way, you won't loathe every minute of the long nights and weekends of snubbing your friends while you study. Instead, you'll see the hard work and deprivation as a temporary but necessary condition.

Otherwise, you may well end up like Anna: swimming so deep in debt you won't know how you'll ever get out, and lamenting everything!

I feel for Anna--she had no idea what she was getting into, she didn't have a clear plan of what she was going to do. Now, she's suffering for her youthful mistakes (and the fact that nobody warned her that college with no plan is a bad idea--or else someone warned her and she didn't listen. In either case, Anna's outcome is the same). It's a horrible situation, to be sure.

But, with good guidance and critical thinking, it's an avoidable trap.

Find your purpose. There is no substitute.