Generally speaking, June is considered a pretty fantastic time of year, especially if you happen to live in a part of the country that has clearly differentiated seasons as we do here in the Lehigh Valley (most of the time). June tends to be that always fast-moving bit of time when the last of the cooler weather has come to its annual end, and an entire summer still lies before us; a blank canvas waiting for each of us to create the memories of outdoor time with family, friends and neighbors enjoying adventures (no travel required). Like an appreciating asset, these times and memories will become more valuable as we get older.
As much as June and summer vacation from school go hand-in-hand, so does that annual rite of long-anticipated passage: graduation. It is with these freshly-minted graduates in mind, and specifically the high school and college grads, that I write this column. If you, dear reader, are not one of these graduates I speak of, then perhaps after reading you will feel compelled to forward this along to a friend or family member proudly representing the Class of ’21. (Or do it the vintage way: print it out and mail it!)
I have nothing but the most fantastic recollections of my high school years, especially the accompanying summer vacations. All of them were spent in western Massachusetts, where I was born and raised. I also clearly remember that the common theme of conversations with adults towards the end of high school often included some version of: “Have you figured out what you want to do in the future?”
Standard variations included:
You need to figure out what you want to do in life.
Let’s figure out your future plan.
We need to get a plan figured out for a career.
You figure out what you want to do with your life yet?
You get the picture. The questions were all slightly different lyrics to the same tune. In all likelihood, it’s one you may be familiar with yourself from being on either side of the conversation.
The spirit of these future-focused conversations can run the gamut of the emotional spectrum. They can take the form of casual banter with a well-meaning aunt or neighbor at your graduation party who’s simply searching for low-hanging fruit for a minute of small talk; conversations with an (often overworked) school guidance counselor doing their level best with hundreds of kids for whom he/she is tasked with helping to put some semblance of a future-oriented plan together; or back-and-forth with an exasperated parent who’s increasingly convinced that if sleeping late and scrolling on the phone suddenly become in-demand, well-paying careers, there is no Plan B skillset.
While the exact phrasing and mood of the conversation may vary, I think it’s safe to say that in almost all cases the person initiating the “figure it out” dialogue is doing so because they genuinely believe that to be successful in life, that’s what you do. They believe that you need to figure out your life’s plan, and ideally, as soon as possible.
As I write this in June 2021, it’s been 27 years since my fellow Class of ’94 friends and I crossed the outdoor stage for a handshake and high school diploma (that’s the 18-year-old me wearing the Spiderman tie).
Of the many things life and experience have taught me since that day, one of the most valuable lessons was figuring out that having everything figured out should not be the goal in life. This mindset runs contrary to much of what we are taught in the classroom, and it’s not a theme that ends in high school. In my experience throughout college and grad school, the emphasis remained slanted toward figuring out a plan now that you would be adhering to into perpetuity.
A fundamental flaw in looking at the future through that lens is that we are using a very old-fashioned method of thinking for future planning. Never before in history has technology been so rapidly and dynamically evolving, and the reality of the matter is we are imploring today’s young people to lock into a plan that does not always factor in the critical skills of adapting and pivoting with change. While we do not know what the future career landscape will look like, we can most assuredly know it will be much different than it is now. According to the World Economic forum, 65 percent of kids currently in grades K-8 will ultimately work in careers that don’t yet exist. Think about that for a moment. Two-thirds of the future workforce will be doing jobs yet to be invented, and much of the time, we are still using the same ‘make your future plan’ playbook that we have always used.
Whatever our chosen paths are at any age, constant curiosity and the desire to continuously learn and improve upon our unique talents and interest are vital in helping us move from good to great in whatever areas to which we dedicate our attention and focus. As the expression goes, ‘passion is the genesis of genius.’ We naturally spend the most time on things in which we are interested; spending that time makes us better at them. Knowing how the world is changing and how our interests and skills can be applied as a career is a daily pursuit; there is no finish line. When we have a fixed mindset that we have any particular area of our lives ‘all figured out’ we’re essentially closing down shop for any additional learning and growth to occur.
To be clear, this is not suggesting a life plan of simply letting the winds of chance carry us around life and whatever happens, happens. More to the point, I place great value on the importance of setting goals and having big ideas in mind. It’s the act of attempting to build a rigid and linear plan that can often lead to disappointment and unfulfilled aspirations.
Evolving interests, passions, skills, experiences, friends, professional influences, unexpected successes and failures are all variables that ultimately are potent forces that propel us forward in life. Progression does not need to be in a straight line, and the best strategies are often the most dynamic and continuously revised. Being open and receptive to the ever-changing landscape of possibilities is a skill set that requires mental training and repetition. The future and its opportunities have never offered a more panoramic view of exciting new directions to explore. To see that view though, we mustn’t close the drapes thinking we already know how everything looks.
Here’s wishing all the members of the Class of 2021 a sincere congratulations. Remember that each day brings a fresh page on which to write more of your life story. Keep a close eye on your pen–or stylus, if you prefer–as there will always be others who want to borrow it.
Eric Bartosz is the founder of BAR40 and the author of the internationally-acclaimed book ‘BAR40: Achieving Personal Excellence.’ He lives in Center Valley with his wife Trish, daughter Riley and pug Piper, and serves the community as an Upper Saucon firefighter, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and a local race organizer. Eric is a 20+ year runner and racer and can often be found logging miles on the Saucon Rail Trail.