It’s Okay to Be Undecided

As our kids end their high school careers, the constant question is “What’s next?” Not only are they asking this question themselves, it seems that everyone else is as well. As they answer the question “What are you going to do next year?” with what college they plan to attend, you can sometimes sense the apprehension. They know the next question: “What are you going to major in?” While it is often meant as a conversation starter, this seemingly innocuous question makes some teens squirm. Some 18 year-olds don’t know what they want to do for the rest of their lives and in today’s world of four-year degrees priced at six-figures, not having a clear focus is sometimes seen as being irresponsible.

I disagree. I think it is even more acceptable to start college “undecided” today than when I was there 30 years ago. I understand that, especially with costs being disproportionately higher today, many parents are reluctant to fund four years of their teen “discovering himself” without a clear objective in mind, but I believe it is shortsighted to expect that such an objective can really be formulated at age 18. Having worked with young adults for more than a decade, I also see the effects of parental and societal pressure on them in the form of depression, anxiety and an overwhelming sense that they must succeed at all costs. For too many, failure at anything is simply not an option. The few students I have encountered without a clear answer to the common question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” seem to be distressed that they don’t yet have it all figured out.

Around the time my oldest entered college, I saw a sign in an airport: “The top 20 jobs 10 years from now have not even been invented yet.” This made me pause and gave me a new way to look at the purpose and methods of higher education. In the years since, the truth in that statement has been proven over and over again.

Those over 50 browsing job listings will likely see many positions that have them scratching their heads. What exactly is a “performance marketing wrangler” or a “course mentor?” Other job descriptions are easier to decipher, but somehow don’t seem like “real jobs.” Technology has in some way complicated our lives, creating the need for positions such as social media manager, content marketer, influencer, mobile app developer, and virtual assistant.  Technology moves at such a fast pace that that students graduating college may start jobs that were not needed or even conceived when they first walked onto campus as an undergrad.

Especially when you consider the ever-changing nature of business in the world today, it’s okay to be undecided. You don’t have to know at age 18 what you will do for the rest of your life. While some professions do require an early commitment (for example careers in some fields such as teaching, nursing and accounting involve certification tests before you can be employed), many of today’s jobs are flexible regarding what field of study you pursue. Even those planning on going to medical and law school have flexibility in what major they choose.

Up to 50 percent of students start college undecided. As one who started college with a clear path that changed dramatically after my first semester, in some ways I envy them. When I realized what I had thought was my career path was not going to work with the life I discovered I wanted, I was lost. I had no reason to stick with the demanding major I had chosen and had no idea what I wanted to study instead. I dabbled and ultimately found my way, but the interim was challenging. I felt like a failure.

I am seeing similar feelings in young adults today. Those who have a plan seem to have the next ten years of their life planned out. Those who are undecided tend to mutter and avoid all discussion of college courses. When I ask what classes they are taking for fun, they look at me quizzically. The reply is generally that they have no room in their schedule for “fun” classes; they have to work on their major. Many of them seem to be hyper-focused on the goal and missing out on the wonderful learning opportunities in the interim.

Today, the pressure to have it all together is even greater. The level of anxiety and depression seen in teens and young adults has been on the rise; they seem to see uncertainty or the possibility of failure as a fatal character flaw.  When college proves to not be “the best years of their lives,” many young adults assume that they are the problem. Too many are wasting the cherished opportunity of this age: to try something new with the possibility of failure (which is nature’s best teacher). We should encourage our kids to take the random class that “counts for nothing.” This may be the class that opens their eyes to new possibilities, that helps them find their place in the world, or at least provides four stress-free hours of classroom instruction.

This is the time they should be taking chances, stretching to see how far they can reach and learning how to pick themselves up when they fall. Allowing them the luxury to explore new interests without the pressure of committing to a single topic can not only reduce stress, it can also give them confidence to try new things. After all, isn’t that how the innovators of the world get started?

This article was first published at, July, 2017

Are We on the Cusp of a New Sexual Revolution?

100_7698The viral reactions to recent news has been unusual to say the least, resulting in a an uproar across the internet. Last week the big story was the child who ended up in a gorilla enclosure at a zoo. People were quick to blame: the mom and the zoo were both the subject of several scathing articles, talking about incompetence and negligence. This week’s viral commentary stems from the news about the college athlete sentenced to a mere 6 months in a county jail for a crime that would have sent many others to spend 14 years in a state prison. Many have written a response to the story itself, as well as to a statement made by the victim and another made by the father of the perpetrator.

The event in question happened over a year ago, and the accounts are horrific. The victim’s statement is a lengthy essay and tells what she remembers of the night and the months that followed. The letter written by the father of the convicted laments how this sentence is a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action” and that his son has been “broken and shattered” by the verdict. He then goes on to say that his son can better help society by educating others about “the dangers of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity.”


Though I can understand that this man is justifiably crushed by the events (after all, who wants to see their child on trial for atrocities and then facing time in a cell), I am utterly baffled at the fact that he seems to have no concern at all for the victim or her family. I understand that this young man is very likely less cheerful and experiencing ”fear and anxiety.” As a parent, I understand the desire to try to relieve these emotions and having to cope with one’s own fear of what such emotions can lead to. What I don’t understand is how anyone could think that the actions that led to this sentence are okay, that there is any possible justification for what happened, or how this can in any way be considered a “steep price.”

Regardless of whether this young man has violent tendencies or if this was a one-time lapse in judgement, he needs to accept responsibility for his actions. He should be treated no differently from anyone else. The fact that he is a star athlete from an elite university should be irrelevant. To be honest, I think that given his privilege, more, not less should be expected of him. As a well-educated person (we are talking about a student at Stanford), he should understand that actions have consequences.

There are some good people in this story.

Two grad students who saw what was happening, put a stop to it and held him until the authorities arrived. We need more people to step in, to pay attention, to speak up. Was no one else around? Could this have been prevented? Some will have us believe that the answer is yes, if there was no alcohol involved, if the victim had dressed and behaved differently. What about self-control, decency, good manners? We need to teach our children from a young age that it is not okay to touch people who don’t want to be touched. To recognize any signs that their actions are making another person uncomfortable. To realize when someone is incapacitated and cannot make a rational decision. This situation is horrific and to trivialize it is unacceptable.

I am hopeful that a change is coming. I am seeing more young men demonstrating an awareness that they cannot assume a woman wants sexual attention, unless she explicitly says so. Buying her drinks or dinner does not entitle one to anything but a thank you at the end of the evening. However, the old way of thinking persists. There are still men who are being told that the world is theirs for the taking, that they can have anything they want, and that women are there for their pleasure.  There is still also the idea that sex is something that should not be discussed. Talking about it is somehow seen as being promiscuous. How then can consent be determined?

Since these “standards” are ingrained in society, this change in thought process is tricky. Though I do not believe that how a woman choses to dress or if she chooses to have a drink indicates her willingness to submit to a man’s wishes, I have had to have the conversation with each of my daughters as they went off to college to watch out for themselves. I told them to not go out alone, to be careful to not drink too much. I cautioned them that alcohol makes it more difficult to get that “no” across, that if they were drunk, they might not be taken seriously, that it increases the likelihood that they might be taken advantage of. I am very aware of the unfairness of my having to have this conversation at all. A woman should be able to go out and have fun without worrying that someone stronger than she might force her into a situation where she might fear bodily harm. She shouldn’t have to dress in baggy sweats or constantly look over her shoulder, concerned that her mere appearance can make a boy lose self-control.

My girls listened politely, then basically shrugged me off. They are strong, independent women, and they assured me they would be fine. They could take care of themselves. I agreed with them, but asked them to be careful anyway and to make sure they went out as part of a group, and made sure to leave no one behind. There is strength in numbers.

Most women have a story to tell

I am thankful that I have no survival stories to tell, but I have had my share of uncomfortable moments. One night at a party at my then-boyfriend’s fraternity, he left me for a few minutes in a very crowded room. While waiting for him to return, a rather large guy (think linebacker large) asked me to dance. I politely said no, and mentioned that my boyfriend would be right back. He persisted and ultimately got ahold of my hand, attempting to pull me closer. Apparently, someone noticed this, and before I knew what was happening, he was surrounded by a group of guys from the fraternity, who escorted him out of the building. My boyfriend returned, saw a ruckus outside and asked me what had happened. I told him and assured him it was all taken care of, there was no need to pursue it further. This story had a happy ending, but it could have gone another direction. I was fortunate to be in a relationship with someone there and that one of his friends read the situation and decided to intervene. This is just one example of “what if … things had gone differently.”

Another time, I let a guy buy me a beer, which made him think that he had purchased a tonsil-swapping, pelvis grinding night on the dance floor and beyond. (He quickly discovered his mistake and was soon making a spectacle with someone else.) Other times, I have been ridiculed for saying no, for making it clear, in no uncertain terms, what the limits were, for not being “easy” (and therefore being “new” or “frigid” or a “tease”).  I have been lucky that my circumstances weren’t different, that I was not alone someplace with someone bigger and stronger than I who could and would force the issue. Not every girl is as fortunate. I recognize this and have made a conscious effort to not allow myself to be put in a position where I may not have a choice. I have then had to pass this advice on to my daughters – men can be trusted, until they can’t, so always be aware.

I have been catcalled and otherwise objectified, had my behind pinched and fondled, and have had very suggestive, very public comments made by men who did not know me. Most women I know have experienced at least some of the same. Complaining about these events has often resulted in being told that we are “too sensitive,” or “too serious,” or that these men were just “showing appreciation.”

The term “rape culture” has been tossed around a lot in recent years and I will admit that I have had a tendency to downplay the idea. I guess I had accepted the status quo, that this is the way things have always been and will be. I don’t live in fear, but sometimes in states of heightened awareness. But what if I didn’t have to? There seems to be a growing awareness that there is a problem, which may be the first step in solving it.

In recent years, I have seen that there is a trend on college campuses to address the problem, in the form of sexual assault awareness programs, much like the widespread alcohol awareness programs which are meant to be  preemptive in nature.  Some colleges are now requiring incoming students to complete awareness training for both sexual and alcohol abuse . These online and small group sessions explain what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse, talk about consent, and encourage bystanders to take action when they see inappropriate behavior. Someone who is drunk cannot give consent. That message is beginning to get out.  Are we on the cusp of a new revolution? One that engenders respect?  One can only hope.

Are “Top” Colleges the Best Preparation for Life?

A recent article I read about a child who was devastated about being rejected by Harvard struck a nerve with me. Despite the fact that only about 10% of students who apply to Ivy League schools are admitted (and many of those rejected do meet the qualifications), this student believed that there were no other options. In fact, his father said it was “the only good school.” I believe that most people see the folly in that line of thought, but this pervasive thought, that only certain schools, (those rated the “top” colleges), are acceptable, needs to be addressed.

I see this story as a wake up call. We can and should be doing more to help our children move into adulthood. They will not always get the brass ring. Not everyone who is deserving gets the prize. And that is okay. Being accepted into what you consider to be your dream school at age 18 is not necessary to be successful in life. The “brand” name schools are good ones, but that doesn’t make the less known ones “bad.” College rankings should be used as a guide. Depending on the source and the criteria, different schools end up at the top. If you are willing to work hard, you can get a good education, even if you are not at a “prestigious” school.

I don’t believe in the notion that some schools are inherently better than others. I do think however, that some schools are better for certain students than others. There are a lot of factors to consider: size, location, price, student/faculty ratio, education and experience of faculty and more. Any specific quality can be a plus or a minus, depending on the needs of the student. There is also the fact that not all children develop at the same rate and some students don’t hit their stride until their late teens, which will rule out the “top” colleges for them. Some of these students may actually end up with more successful careers than those in the top ten percent of the graduating class. What is comes down to is this: you get out of it what you put in.

Suicide and stress levels in college age students keep making the news. In the US, we appear to have a mental health epidemic, especially among our brightest students. How did this happen? How can we reverse this trend?

My own children span ten years and I have seen a dramatic difference in the general attitude about higher education and a corresponding spike in stress and anxiety level. My oldest and youngest are similar in their drive and ambition. Both were part of a crowd of high achievers. Both have friends who applied to and were accepted by Ivy League schools. All of these children are obviously intelligent and accomplished, but the older group of students was much more relaxed about the entire application process. Over the years I have seen more and more anxiety among teenagers as a whole as college acceptance letters roll in, with an overwhelming “need” to get into the “good” schools way out of proportion with the needs of real life.

With my oldest, little was said about the application process. Students simply got it done and went on with their very busy lives until the letters started coming in. A few worked on applications over the summer, but most completed them just before the deadlines. Maybe the fact that Facebook only existed for those who already had a college email helped, but there was little fanfare about these acceptances. Yes, there was nervous anticipation on the day acceptances were provided online (for the few colleges that did this) or when one heard that a certain college’s letters were arriving in homes, but only one’s close friends generally heard about the results until Student Decision day came along in the spring.

It was a completely different story for my youngest. Her classmates talked about college applications during junior year. Social events became SAT prep sessions. Essays were written over the summer before senior year (or maybe even during junior year). Applications were in well before the deadlines (even before senior year started). And then they waited, and stressed. I doubt that their parents appreciated it, but my daughter’s friends commented on my lack of pressure throughout the process. Most colleges we visited said they wouldn’t look at a single application before the deadline. I didn’t advocate waiting until the last minute, but saw no reason to cause any more stress than existed in the day-to-day schedule of the rigorous course load my child had chosen. I knew that the applications would be completed on time, and besides, it wasn’t my responsibility; it was hers.

A Generational Shift

Something changed in society during the years in between. My children attended the same schools, with many of the same teachers. If I had to say what I noticed most, it was the expectations, both from the parents and the school. I remember sitting at a meeting many years ago where a parent requested that the school district institute a policy of giving homework over the summer to help alleviate the need for re-teaching in the fall. Mine and a few other voices rejected that idea, insisting that such breaks were crucial for recharging and spending family time. But there was a quiet push, an undercurrent that drove everyone to expect more.

As my youngest was getting ready to start high school, I noted a concern among the parents about college preparedness. There was a drive to push our children, to choose a challenging course schedule, to add AP courses; there was a focus on post-secondary education and careers that was absent just ten years before, and it was present as these children were ENTERING high school. The earlier group of parents seemed content to let children find their way. This second group seemed very much focused on ushering our children through the process and into young adulthood.

I have come to the conclusion through my completely unscientific observations that this is something that we have created ourselves. Parents and teachers alike are piling expectations on teenagers and this is creating a stressed-out generation of learners. It is time for teachers to stop reminding students each and every day of their junior year that it is “the most important” year of their educational lives. Yes, teenagers need occasional reminding, and anyone who has parented one knows that they rarely hear anything the first time you say it, but enough already! Parents have to back off as well and focus on their children doing their best, not on getting the highest possible grade.

I worked in a high school as a paraprofessional for several years, mostly with honors students in an English class. Without fail, when they had papers returned, about half the class immediately pulled out calculators to determine their updated grade average. At a time when they should have been looking at their writing, evaluating what they had done well and what they needed to work on, all they cared about was the grade! Of course this pressure came from outside, whether from their parents, their teachers or society. My job was to read and grade student essays, and one in particular sticks in my mind. One student wrote about bringing home a writing assignment, with a grade of 89, which was a good grade for this student. The parent’s response, “Why didn’t you get an A?” What was a proud moment for this student quickly turned into disappointment at failing a parent’s expectations.

Parents need to know that with writing in particular, there are no perfect papers. You are not likely to see a 100% grade on an essay. Why? Because there is always room for improvement. Perfection is a goal that cannot be achieved in writing. The grammar may all be right, but there is always some way to improve on how you say something. Why is this important? Because in many classes, students are graded on what they know based on how well they express their knowledge. In writing.

The media has added fuel by focusing on how the U.S. lags behind other countries in some area of education. Since we cannot be second to anyone, this has generally resulted in increased efforts to teach skills that we are behind in, often to the detriment of those in which we are doing well.

The government has made a step in the right direction in reducing the frequency of testing. Here too, teachers have been forced to contribute to the instability of children’s mental health. With their jobs on the line if students don’t test well, they have stressed the importance of these standardized tests, causing even children who test well to have physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches at test times.

Parents recognize the importance of grades, since that is how students get into the “better” colleges. Every parent wants the best for their child and it is natural to want better for your child. Sometimes this results in parents getting overly involved, sometimes to the point of completing assignments and even college applications for their children. With many more students are applying to colleges today than did 30 or even 10 years ago, the competition is greater. As parents, we tell our children to reach for the sky. We also need to teach them how to cope when the sky is too high, this time. Being a teenager is hard, I think more so today than when I was there. I think it is our job as parents to prepare our kids to handle things without us.

When I get into a conversation on this topic, I am often posed a question like this one: “Given the same level of experience, which neurosurgeon would you want cutting into your brain, one from an Ivy League school or one from a state school?” I am not convinced that a more expensive or more prestigious school automatically makes one more skilled. Personally, I would want the doctor who sees me as a person, one who knows something about me and my life, who practices medicine due to a desire to help people, not one who sees all patients as a number, a notch on the belt.

These interpersonal skills are not taught in college. It is true that some are picked up along the way, as a side effect of living with a large population, but most of these have to come with the student. These are the things as parents we can foster: patience, a sense of empathy, how to listen and how to treat others with respect and compassion.

I am proud of my children, for their accomplishments, but more importantly for the people they are. They are the kind of people I would want to work for and with, the kind of people I can trust to make sound decisions about my future, the kind of people I would choose to spend time with. These are the things that matter, not what name is at the top of your college degree (or if you even have a college degree for that matter).