Higher education is replete with little boxes pleading to be checked off: credit hours to be attained, clubs to be joined, resumes to be built and of course, most importantly, a degree to be earned.
Indeed, receiving a college education is, itself, one big box that countless students hope to eventually check off. Beyond higher education exist the other “big” boxes of life: careers, relationships, financial stability and more.
This life of boxes is representative of American society and our ever-present culture of goals. From a young age, children are confronted with questions: What do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to do? At no point in life do such questions become louder than in college.
The relatively harmless question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” gradually takes on more and more weight as one reaches adolescence. For many, it mutates into “Where are you going to school?” once they reach junior or senior year of high school. Next is “What are you majoring in?”
And then finally it returns to its original form: “What do you want to do?” Only this time, a flippant response of “fireman” or “astronaut” likely won’t suffice.
These questions are ubiquitous in the life of a student. They come up on a near-daily basis and seem to greet you at every handshake, every hello and every classroom doorway. They remind you that you better keep an eye on those boxes, because sooner or later the clock will run out and you will have missed your chance to check them off. They remind you that you are only as good as your goals.
Of course, school, major and career are reflective of one’s values to some degree, but they certainly do not illustrate the entire spectrum of one’s interests and ideals. Does my political science major tell you how much I love my dog and my cat back home? Does my pursuit of a degree from The University of Alabama reveal how integral the relationships I have with family and friends are to my well-being and happiness? No, of course not.
We are far more than our goals. We are complex individuals who are much more accurately understood through our values.
In the age of social media we are all-the-more inundated with goal-obsessed culture. We see our peers flaunt the boxes they have checked off right before our eyes, and we feel an even greater need to follow suit. In this digital race to keep up with the Joneses, it becomes even more important to remember and prioritize our values.
It is OK to be undeclared. It is OK to be uncertain about your career plans. It is OK to be present instead of living for the future. It is all OK as long as you understand what you hold dear. We students are always looking toward the horizon in anxious anticipation, chomping at the bit to burst onto the racetrack of adulthood, but how will these ever be the “best years of our lives” if we do not take the time to live them?
I am writing this as much for myself as I am for those who will read it. I am writing this to remind students like me that your happiness is not dependent on your goals — that your true happiness lies in what you value. Craft your goals to suit the things you cherish; do not let societal expectations override your individual ideals.
Of course, to do so you must understand what it is that you value — luckily for you, there may be no better time to gain that understanding than now. Join those organizations, take those classes, apply for those internships –– not to check a box, but to better grasp who you are and to answer a far more important question: What do I care about?
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