Going to College: If You Knew Then What You Know Now

A dear friend on Facebook asks:

Instead of tv, ice cream and such, let’s ask those things that we really want to know about each other, like:

If you knew then what you know now, what career would you have pursued and studied at a younger age?

She answers herself, saying she would have taken just a year off after college to explore and travel, and then gone to medical school.

But was there ever any way for that to happen?

“If you knew then what you know now.” What an illusion. Nobody gets to be 43 at 17.

I think it’s so much more than “knowing then.” It’s having parents who value education (formal or informal) and guide you through childhood to learning about yourself — and who learned themselves from some source that that’s a good way to raise a child. And not every parent and not every generation has access to this idea.

“Knowing” is also knowing yourself, and becoming able to interpret yourself into the right job. I’ve heard one person say she had trouble finding a job because her perfect career (web designer) didn’t even exist until her twenties.

And people can and do change. The perfect thing to study at 19, even if you have everything going for you (parents who guided you to learning about the world and yourself, money for college, a learning style suited to the paradoxical submission to bureaucracy and tradition college asks of us all while telling us we are to be taught to think for ourselves) might not be the perfect thing at 35. I’m saddened by the self-defeating attitude in this society that says that we must attend college by 25, or long for a lost chance the rest of our lives.

I started college at 34 and attend with people in their 60s and 70s. It was hard, but it’s do-able. Most people, I think, don’t do it because there are so few trailblazers, and because we think of college as a place for the young for no good reason I can think of.

And chance is such a huge factor in anyone’s life. Sometimes, only chance, chaos and dumb luck take us where we need to go. No amount of parental preparing can show us everything. Dumb luck uncovered two of my own best talents later in life.

I’m also bothered by the idea that college and only college is the golden ticket to self-betterment. I found incredible success and self-actualization through formal education, but I don’t recognize university as the only way to increasing capability.

Mentorship, workshops, travel, informal learning, apprenticeship — don’t they count, too? I think you really do get out what you put in.

A friend is in Australia right now attending a festival celebrating indigenous culture. She plans to connect Australian aborigines with Native Americans to heal “historical trauma.” She’s not doing this through any program other than the program of her heart. And she is prepared for a mind-blowing experience that will take her life and career plans to a next level.  Big balls and help from family and community, yes; formal educational help, no.

And must we have only one career? Must we be shot out of a cannon at 19 and stay that course until retirement? Can’t we add layers to ourselves as we age and learn?

And do our jobs define us?

I wish I’d had parents who better understood me, but I’m simply too different from them. I didn’t even have a chance, really, for the kind of choice my friend describes. Quite possibly they didn’t either growing up, or my dad would not be the complaining, dissatisfied man he is now.

I wish I’d discovered nonfiction writing earlier, and discovered ways to love and teach science through writing and communication earlier. I wish I’d uncovered my design and photography skills and hungers before age 39.

But I didn’t, in part because there still is not any one undergraduate major that encompasses me.  I’d have to get at least three undergraduate degrees to cover — formally — all the marketable things I think I am best at.

I am still learning the best I can at 40.

And I feel that things have hardly begun.

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