Is it safe to say that, at some point, we’ve all felt that if we wanted to make a particular career change, we would have to go to graduate school first? “Obviously if I want to work there, I would have to go back to school first.” “The job postings all require a graduate degree in XYZ.” “I don’t know exactly what to do next, so maybe grad school?” Do these thoughts sound familiar? Even if we haven’t expressed these sentiments ourselves, odds are we’ve heard them from friends, family or other well-meaning people trying to help us figure things out.
Sometimes more education seems like the only thing that can get us from A to B, guarantee us preparedness for the next step, or even get us off the hamster wheel of life for minute. I, myself, did go to grad school for all the reasons listed above. I went because I thought it was the answer to a lot of things. I really went because I thought it would solve the problem of what I was meant to do with my life. (Spoiler alert: it did not.)
I went for one semester. I knew immediately it was wrong, but I assumed it was just me. I was the one missing something. After all, it was a logical means to an end. It was a responsible solution. It meant I was taking steps to solve a problem.
Ultimately, it was none of these things.
So why did I think grad school was the answer?
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is. I’m very happy, for example, that doctors go to grad school. It makes a lot of sense that 21-year old biology majors aren’t allowed to perform open-heart surgery. But, what about the rest of us? The ones who aren’t totally sure what the next “right” step is? Why is grad school an answer we all default to?
Maybe it’s because during our formative years, our whole lives followed a path. Everything was perfectly laid out and the benchmarks for success were clearly labeled and identified. Homework assignments, class schedules–everything was predestined and pre-approved. There was a built in structure and timeline to follow. You never had to think about what to do next.
We all follow the structure of school for our formative years. It is a clear path forward. There is no confusion about what you need to do next. The metrics of how to succeed are very clearly defined. Sure, there might be two electives you want to take one semester and you’re nervous about choosing the wrong one, but there is minimal unknown in a greater known setting.
And then it’s just gone. After school, there’s just life. Once you leave an educational setting, the structure evaporates and all your choices become your own. Even the decision to go back to school is your own. And oh how scary that decision can be! And, that’s just one decision, and it might land you back in a system where you already know you will thrive.
So, now what?
How do you measure progress after all your metrics disappear? Your bank account balance? Marriage? The acquisition of a 9-5 job, with a similar structure and similar metrics for success so you’ll always know how you’re doing? That certainly provides a place to go everyday and specific, assigned tasks that can be measured with proficiency, along with feedback from a superior, who ostensibly has done this before and can guide you.
But sometimes these new metrics provide a false sense of security. Because you are an intelligent human being, you may start to think you made the wrong choice because this one single thing won’t satisfy you for 20 years. But, you didn’t make the wrong choice. You just might not be meant to do the same thing for 20 years. You might just get bored. Boredom begins at mastery. Imagine taking 20 years of French class. Yes, you would get an A every time. But you would probably be so bored the long list of A’s would cease to mean anything.
In life, there is no set structure. For some people, especially people who hated school, that can feel like the greatest relief. And for those who loved school, or at least did well in it, that can be terrifying. How will you know what to do? Who will guide you forward? How will you know if you’re doing it right?
The answer is simple
1. Create your own structure: pick someone’s life you wouldn’t mind having and make similar decision.
2. Find a mentor. Talking to someone who knows more than you do, in an area you would like to know more about, can be invaluable. The things you don’t know yet? They know. And even if they don’t, they’ll know what you need to ask to get there.
4. Make decisions.
5. Make more decisions.
More school sometimes feels like a safe answer because it provides built-in structure and metrics that one doesn’t have to think about – or, really, decide – what you value. Whereas life is deciding what you actually value. What is important to you right now? It’s okay if it’s not important to you in ten years, but we need to start somewhere. What would you like more of in your life? What would you like less of? These are the kinds of questions that allow you to develop your own ideas about how you will measure success. Not necessarily getting an A because someone else decided that was inherently valuable.
Do the thing you think will be slightly more helpful. Do the thing that the person you want to become would do. Maybe grad school is the next step on your path, but it’s still just one step. If we are lucky, there will be many more. All you need to do to take the right steps, is to make sure they are valuable to you. It might take a little longer, it might feel a little scarier, or less certain at first, but ultimately it’s worth it. Because if it’s perfect, but empty, what’s the point?
SARA KRAVITZ helps people who don’t know what they want but know it’s not this figure out if they should quit their jobs so they can stop dreading Sunday nights. She is a career coach, author, and speaker who helps helps people understand (but, like, really understand) that this doesn’t have to be life. You can climb out of every hole. It might be awkward and uncomfortable at times (in fact, you can probably guarantee it will be), but there’s always a solution. (Even for you.)
You can download her international, bestselling book, Just Tell Me What I Want, for free here.