On Campus

Lost in the jungle of possibility: How to locate your goal

EXCERPT "What's Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway"

Now for the good news. Your university is filled with programs, departments, advisors, and opportunities that can help you find some reason to care about what you’re doing. There’s no right reason, and there’s no simple answer. You just need to sit down and really think about (and maybe talk about) what you want out of life. Okay, I’ll admit, I’m making it sound easier than it is, but it’s still something that you need to do.

There are all kinds of people out in the workforce doing things that have no real relation to their degrees. Probably you’ve heard that before. Maybe it’s part of what contributed to your idea that how you do in school doesn’t much matter. Well, for some people, that’s true, but you still don’t end up in a career entirely by accident. Find something that interests you. It doesn’t have to have any relation to what you are learning in class; it just needs to be something you care about. Volunteer for your campus radio station, coach a sports team, or get involved with some kind of community outreach program. It may seem counter-intuitive, but you’ll do better in class just because you have a reason to show up for school, even if it means putting some time into something that isn’t academic. I can’t draw a straight line to illustrate how coaching a university sports team helps you get to where you want to be in life, but people who care about what they are doing, and are engaged in their environments, are simply more successful. So if you really can’t care about what you are doing in class, at least find something to care about outside of class.

If you think you might have an idea of the sort of career you want, but it’s always been something just lurking in the back of your mind, then it’s a really good idea to start looking at it directly. Universities are all about this stuff, so use the resources available to you. Visit your Academic Advising office, your career office, or whatever it’s called, and start asking questions. If you’re going to need more education to get where you want to be, you need to know that now. If you’re going to need some kind of internship, you’ll want to know that too. If you’ve been surfing along on the assumption that you’ll go to graduate school or something, as a way of pushing back the question, then at least get a solid handle on what you’ll need to get in there. Graduate programs are fiercely competitive, and you need to either compete at that level or be more self-honest about your goals.

The one other thing you can look at changing in order to find some greater motivation is what you’re learning. If you’ve got no particular goal other than to graduate with a university degree, you’ve got an entire calendar full of courses you could be taking. So what interests you? If you really don’t have an answer, so be it, but at least take some time to seriously ask the question. You don’t need to stay locked into choices you made when you first applied if those choices no longer make sense.

The hardest part about approaching some of these questions is that you probably feel like you’ve been doing everything right, so you don’t deserve to feel lost or concerned about your future. To a point it may be true that you’ve done everything you’re supposed to. But the simple truth is that doing everything right is not necessarily enough. It’s good enough for “okay,” and that’s what you’ll get if you continue the way you have been. Your university degree will get you out of food service, front-line retail, and probably manufacturing (though some of those jobs pay pretty well), and will get you into the white-collar sector, but I suspect you want more than just a job that will keep your hands from getting dirty. And stimulating jobs, the kind you can really feel good about, aren’t going to just fall in your lap.

So whether in university or outside of it, you’re going to have to start thinking about what you really want. You’ve got to define what “success” means to you, and then care about it enough to work for it.

Excerpted from “What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work for You Anyway”, © 2007 by Jeff Rybak. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press. The book is available here.

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