Helping Students Find Their Way

At the EFF party, the friend of a friend made a vivid statement about the value of helping high school and college students figure out what job fits them best. When I asked if I could quote him in my blog, he said he preferred this way of putting it:

I believe a large fraction of people around ages 16-22 are ignorant of what kinds of work environments and activities will make them happy and productive later in life. Current classroom-based training structures do not provide exposure to work environments. The cultural and social pressures from media, family and friends can be overwhelming and can often lead to people being very confused, and hence, making poor choices. I’ve seen that people tend to get very limited and highly biased information that leads to making training choices and work choices early in their life that are often not well matched for the person’s individual genius. By mid 20’s and 30’s, getting out of these poor choices is extremely difficult, as financial requirements as one ages grow and available time to retrain diminishes. Expectations of experience grow as one gets older, and the neural ability to quickly learn and master new skills diminishes, especially much later, after 40 or 50 years. All of these factors point toward a critical need to have experienced, outside input into making early choices about career paths, and what types of experiences individuals would benefit from most. Such advice is available, and can be found – but it is not commonly accepted that expert outside opinion is the best source for career and training choices for young people. Kids get it mostly from their parents and friends – neither of which are consistently accurate, trained in normal psychology, or unbiased in their assessments. While many schools have “guidance counselors”, I have seen most of the service offered as severely lacking (like much of public education) when compared with the needs of students, both in quality and quantity. I think there is are enormous unmet needs in many cultures, the US in particular, to provide more assistance to people in their late teens and college years to deeply explore what career options best fit their personality, and provide assessment and testing with definitive recommendations for majors, mentors, internships, and work choices.

Furthermore, when viewed on the societal level, there is an obvious argument that a society will function better when higher percentage of the population finds work/life situations that leave them happier and more productive. This I feel is even more important than providing education looking out on the 10-20 year technology horizon. In a world where most educational materials and social connections will be portable, open source, and available online – the problem will not be as much about getting information, skills, or training, but in individuals being tracked toward education options, career paths, and work environments that work best for them: a problem not easily solved with mass distribution of content or any technology solution.

This view arises partly from his own experience. He majored in Chemistry and Physics, then got a Ph.D. from Stanford in Biomedical Informatics. After working in that area for several years, he discovered that what he really enjoyed was building communities, and moved in that professional direction. Currently he is building an online community to share digital media content.

6 Replies to “Helping Students Find Their Way”

  1. i don’t think there’s much rocket science to it, really.

    Like they say, you can paint a turd gold…put lipstick on a pig…etc.

    I have always hated the word ‘career’ and still do – I’m 34, now. A career means you’ve sold out – you’ve stopped caring about the world and have bought into the 9-to-5 and a mid-level management position and an occasional lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. Forget that.

    People don’t hate their jobs because they are ‘not a good personality fit’ for them. People hate their jobs because people are not automatons. Adam Smith said division of labor led to productivity gains, but he also said it made people “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become”. He goes on to say that governments needed to prevent this from happening – well, if we would want to consider ourselves an ‘improved and civilized’ society, that is.

    Other economists went much further – decrying wage labor because it deprives us of our humanity.

    I think i’d agree with these other economists. I’m sure most Americans do, too.

    The solution, then, is not to help children to decide which position they would best be able to withstand this mental, physical, moral, and emotional dumbing down with – the solution is to help children escape this awful world we’ve created for them by restructuring society so that they don’t have to perform mind-numbing work just to have access to health care – just to have a roof over their heads – just to be considered ‘respectable’.

    At a minimum, we need to be honest with them about the world they are going to enter – they will rent themselves to some corporation for 40+ hours a week, push paper, take orders, attend meetings, and other assorted meaningless tasks. And when they’re sufficiently brain-dead and have learned to not challenge authority, they’ll be promoted. Then they’ll buy more stuff and repeat the process. They’ll be miserable, so they’ll have kids, and those 20 years will slide by with some sense of purpose, and then they’re back in the crapper – visiting websites on anti-depressants, wondering if they can just end it all without hurting too many people they care about.

    We need radical democratic reforms at the lowest levels of society – in the home, in the workplace, etc. Don’t try to tell kids that they’re supposed to fit into some godforsaken ‘career’ – it’s not fair.

    Tell them the truth – “We messed up really bad. It’s unforgivable, but that’s the truth. You will probably never be happy renting yourself to some corporation – an immortal person – a god, if you will – so you need to think about ways you can stay alive without submitting yourself completely to this way of life. Here are some ideas. Oh yeah – now _you_ have a responsibility to help us change things for kids behind you.”

  2. Seth,

    I chose my career (scientific research) by looking around, when I was 20 years old or so, at what various guys in their 50s whom I knew were doing. My impression was that the guys doing scientific research were happy with their jobs, even into their 50s and 60s, but people in other jobs weren’t so happy. Just about all the researchers–including those who weren’t doing interesting work–seemed to like their jobs. To me, at the age of 20, a business-type job seemed more glamorous, but I thought it would make more sense to do work that, statistically speaking, would be likely to leave me happy in 30 or 40 years.

  3. Help!!! I have three kids, ages 24, 22 and 19, and I know they need this type of career counseling. The colleges are pretty useless at this too, especially liberal arts. But I don’t know who to go to (Mpls area). Any suggestions? And how do you tell the “good” counselors from the bad?

Comments are closed.