“Career exploration can be done later. Now’s the time to enjoy your high school years.”
This attitude is surprisingly prevalent in our culture, but there are two things wrong with it. First off, it sets the student up to fail in college with no clear direction, no driving purpose, and no real reason to be there—all at the most expensive time of life.
I went to college and yes, it was a very formative time for me. I’m not saying kids have to have it all together and know every detail of their future lives by high school graduation. What I do argue is that they will be best able to make the most of their postsecondary training (whether at college or another pathway) if they go already equipped with a sense of purpose.
The second problem with this statement is that it assumes that career exploration is not enjoyable but is rather an onerous burden that we shouldn’t be placing on young people. But meaningful career exploration is so much more than the passive reception of bland information. It should be a hands-on, proactive, experiential process where students are encouraged to take the lead in their own self-discovery. It can and should be a highlight of the learning experience, because it makes education practical.
I understand the perspective that it’s a lot to ask high-schoolers to commit to a lifework at a time when everything’s changing in their lives. This is why I advocate what I call the “for-now” direction.
Direction For Now
Just choose something. It doesn’t have to be permanent. In fact, it probably won’t be, and that’s okay. Just pick a career that sounds interesting, something that could possibly become your personal light at the end of the tunnel—and start taking steps to reach it. That’s the for-now direction.
This strategy engages young people in thinking about their future without the pressure of making an irrevocable choice. Having a goal—even a temporary one—will motivate them to improve engagement, performance, and completion rates as they begin to entertain the concept of planning ahead.
Too many young people today are paralyzed by the daunting decision of a lifelong career choice and therefore simply choose “nothing.” This becomes crushing for them as they continue to fall further behind.
Framing their goals as fluid and open to change repositions career exploration as a fun experience rather than a high-stress decision. And it’s also when they start making progress and learning a wide range of professional skills. During their for-now walk down the tunnel, they become far better prepared for whatever comes next as they discover and develop their unique interests, talents, and abilities.
We can ask several questions to help young people drill down to a for-now direction:
- What interests you right now? What do you do with your free time?
- What do you love to do and what do you do well?
- How can the things you enjoy doing in your free time be part of a future career?
- If you were working a full-time job today, what would you want to be doing?
- Are there any adults you know who have a career that sounds interesting to you?
Incidentally, this can also be a great exercise in goal-setting, a skill that far too many young people have not been taught. The for-now direction can also soothe the concerns of parents who may be worried about their child making choices now that they may regret later.
Decisions for the Future
A young person’s for-now direction can turn into a forever direction if through this process they land on their perfect intersection of lifestyle and career. Indeed, that’s our hope, but we have achieved our objective if we have helped the young person find a possible career interest for today. There is no further pressure on us as educators and parents to produce a different result.
Frequent direction changes may seem flighty, but in fact they show that the young person is actively thinking about their future and considering the options. They should be encouraged and supported when they change their mind, not censured in any way.
Ultimately, using the for-now direction as a motivational and career exploration strategy will prepare students for when the time does arrive to take a decisive career step. They’ve practiced, they’ve learned about setting goals, and they’ve probably ruled out some things along the way. Their education has been invested with extra relevance because they had a reason to make the effort.
And no, thinking about careers during high school won’t ruin the fun of these years. Rather, it will motivate young people to do their best work, creating anticipation for an exciting and productive future where they are in control of their own destiny.