What I Wish My Parents Taught Me Before I Graduated

November 24, 2017

Change is overwhelming at the best of times. 

As a graduate, finishing high school, coupled with the pressure of deciding what to do, can be all consuming.

I remember it like yesterday, the daunting feeling I should have life figured out. As people asked, “What will you do next?” I’d put on my bravest face and respond with some noble profession, usually “I’ll be a lawyer” because that felt like the ‘right’ answer.

But I didn’t really know what I wanted to be. I didn’t even really know who I was.

What I did know were manners, I’d been taught this at home. At school, I’d been taught traditional education, all about math, English and science. However, there was something critical missing.

There was almost no focus on the skills required for navigating an adult life post-graduation. I felt somewhat pushed out of the school gates and overly confused by the notion that the world was about to become my oyster. In reality, I felt like an oyster lost in a big open sea.

I understand this is a privileged problem, but it is the very real first world problem of too much choice. This choice overload left me stifled and anxious without the tools I needed to move forward.

These are the things I wish I knew before graduating; things I hope you’ll impart to your own kids as they prepare to finish school…

Not knowing is normal

If only I’d been taught that today most students don’t know what they’ll do after school, I would have avoided the misconception that there was something wrong with me.

In retrospect, others probably assumed I knew what I wanted. So, I guess I played into this game of pretending. Little did they know my answer didn’t reflect my true thoughts. Sure, I had some interests, but I had no idea how my future would look. And why should I – with no experience yet in the world after school – have to make such a decision?

Regardless, as adults, we carry out asking young people what they want to be as school draws to a close, expecting a well-formulated response.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some kids who know. Oh, how I envied those kids! However, for the rest of us, when we were asked this pointed question, we scrambled.

It’s taken many years, countless wrong-turns, some dead-end jobs, and much confusion, to learn that, in fact, I didn’t need to have all the answers when I tossed my graduation cap into the air.

I wish I’d been taught it was okay to simply respond with, “I’m interested in XYZ, and I’ll see where it leads me”. Having the freedom to answer in this unassuming way would’ve made me think more about what I’d have liked to explore, and less pressured about picking the one perfect career, ultimately, breaking the age-old stigma that graduating students should have their futures figured out.

In fact, research conducted by author David Stillman revealed most students today still don’t know this answer anyway, as 65 percent will be employed in jobs that don’t even exist yet.

There will be ups and downs

Today we’re taught our decisions determine our destiny; that we’re the masters of our lives. While I’m totally one to back this mindset, and I always love a little motivation, there’s one small detail missing.

Whether we like it or not, along with the ups, life will always throw us an equal amount of downs.

Researchers have well documented the importance of holding a balanced future outlook for overcoming adversity. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has undertaken extensive research in the field of resilience and believes, “We should prepare youth to anticipate failures and misfortunes and point out that excellence in any discipline requires years and years of time on task”.

By learning early in life that times will get tough, we can be better psychologically prepared. We can then learn various coping skills to lean on during these times, such meditation, exercise and established support networks.

As tough as the statement “there will be tough times ahead” may sound to impart on a teenager, it’s one that would’ve helped me feel like less of a failure when I hit my first hurdles as a school-leaver.

Happiness is a skill

No matter what background we come from, we all want one thing; to be happy. Our desire for happiness can be highlighted by the existence of today’s multi-million dollar wellness industry. But, while there’s no one quick fix for achieving eternal bliss, the growing field of positive psychology is revealing scientific methods that can best teach us how.

So, if I were taught one thing before finishing school, I wish it would have been the skills to live a happy and fulfilled life. Positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s PERMA model outlines five essentials for wellbeing and happiness…

Positive emotions: The most obvious of all; doing things and thinking thoughts that make us feel good.

Engagement: Finding flow, or engaging in activities that absorb us.

Relationships: Creating authentic connections with people.

Meaning: Finding a purpose for living outside of ourselves.

Achievement: Attaining a sense of accomplishment by setting personal goals and reaching them.

There’s some truth in the old saying, “You can’t put an old head on new shoulders”, as some things can only truly be learnt from experience. Nonetheless, these three simple pieces of advice would have been invaluable to me on the road to navigating adult life, and they can be to your own kids as you prepare them for graduation.

All seriousness aside, there’s much to learn in the post-school world, but there’s also much to enjoy. In the words of Hoda Kotb, “Be crazy. Be stupid. Be silly. Be weird. Be whatever. Because life is to short to be anything but happy.”

Don’t let your kids forget that.

Amba Brown is an Australian Positive Psychology author and the creator of Finding Your Path, a happiness series for youth transitions. You can watch Amba’s TEDx Talk here, on how to support students in finding a happy path after school.

Images via giphy.com, tumblr.com and pexels.com.

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