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  • Proactive Happiness

Helping Your Young Adult Pick Their Path

On an almost daily basis, I have conversations with young adults, their parents, and sympathizers about how unrealistic it is to expect young adults to pick what they want to do with their lives when they are 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 or even 20. I love hearing the insights people have on this topic, and listening to seasoned professionals admit that they are thankful they are not the ones having to make that choice in this day and age.

I like to equate this scenario to a kid having ice cream for the first time. Imagine taking a kid into an ice cream store, and without letting them taste any of the flavors, you tell them they have to pick one flavor, and it is the only flavor they can have for the rest of their life. Once they pick their flavor, you then also tell them that they have to give up all of their favorite toys to pay for the ice cream. It sounds a little ridiculous when I put it in those terms, doesn’t it? But the reality of the matter is that every day around the world, young adults are picking majors and career paths the same way that kid is picking their ice cream flavor.

Now, you may be asking yourself “Young adults have always had to pick their path forward. How is it any different today then it was 50 years ago??” Let’s examine that question for a moment. What has changed? A LOT. College has gotten incredibly competitive and insanely expensive. With computers and social media, young adults are constantly comparing themselves to others, and there is more pressure to make “the right decision”. There is an unlimited amount of information out there for young adults to consider when making their decision, which can complicate things to the point of overwhelming everyone involved. Gone are the days of “Oh, I’ll just go and get a degree and then figure out what I want to do”. Young adults are coming out of college loaded down with debt, and a degree they have no interest in using (that they paid and arm and a leg for).

It is time we got smarter about giving our young adults a better chance of success when it comes time for them to make this decision. As a career coach, when I talk to young adults about why they have chosen their major/career/path forward, the most common reasons I hear are 1) that is what my parents want me to do, and I want to make them proud (sometimes not said in these exact words), 2) that is what my friends are doing, and 3) I want to make a lot of money.

To all of the parents out there who have heard these responses, I implore you to stop the conversation right there and to start approaching the conversation from a different perspective. Start by asking your young adults some of the following questions or look into working with a career coach to help your young adult get some clarity on the items below:

  • Tell me what you think your strengths are.

  • What are your favorite things to do?

  • What types of tasks do you avoid in your schoolwork? What do you consistently put off until the very last minute?

  • Do you know what a day in the life of a [insert role here] looks like? What they do every day?

  • Do those responsibilities sound like something you would like to do every day? How do they align with the tasks you find yourself avoiding in your schoolwork?

  • Would this career fit well and make the most of your strengths?

  • Do you know how much schooling is required and what kinds of grades will be required to land the job you are interested in after college? Is that a commitment you’re willing to make?

As the parent, we all want success for our young adults, and no one knows them better than you do. Take a step back, and analyze whether you think your young adult will find happiness and success in the role they are considering. Think about who they are, as a person, and think about whether that lines up with the job. Your young adult is unique, so think about all of those different attributes/strengths that make your young adult who they are. For example, if your young adult is creative and is always drawing/painting/sculpting, landing in a job with no creative outlet will eventually wear on them. If your young adult likes talking to people, do not encourage them to head down a path that will end with them sitting in a cubicle reading contracts all day. Ignoring these elements can result in your young adult trying to find a way to incorporate that element into their career sometime down the road, oftentimes taking significant steps backwards to get what they needed from day one.

If you have not already done so, I would highly recommend arranging a time for your young adult to meet with someone (at least one person) who is already in their contemplated career. If you are involved in arranging the meeting, ask the individual to be very candid and open with your young adult. Once your young adult starts down their path, encourage them and support them as they do internships – even if it is unpaid. I have talked to many young adults who decided to course correct and head down a different path after doing an internship and getting a better understanding of the contemplated field.

This process can be very overwhelming for all involved, and every parent wants their young adult to be successful and happy at the end of the day. Throughout the process, remember to be realistic and honest with yourself and your young adult. Encouraging your young adult to be a doctor or a lawyer because they could potentially make a lot of money will do neither of you any good if they decide three years from now (and many tuition checks later) that they actually have no desire to continue down that path. Put in the legwork and have the difficult conversations now – you will both be glad you did down the road.

Getting the cold shoulder every time you bring the subject up? These are difficult conversations that bring in a lot of emotion from all involved. It is a lot of pressure for both the parent(s) and the young adult, but don’t give up! If you need help (or an independent third party!), consider bringing a career coach in to help facilitate these conversations with your young adult.

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