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The Goal of Growing Up
With how much effort you put into it, the first day of your first job after graduation should be a much bigger celebration. Your whole childhood had been leading up to that moment. Isn’t that what you were told? That’s why you had to go to school all those years, why you had to study hard, why you had to get good grades and do all those extracurriculars and go to a good college, not to mention grad school. You’d think finally getting the payoff of that hard work would warrant a bigger party. Instead you get a day of mind-numbing orientation and an early bedtime. Maybe you go to lunch. College graduation gets more acknowledgement. That’s like celebrating the last day of practice and then shrugging off the game.
Work, the Promise and the Fear
For many of us, the first days of real, adult work are a time of excitement and satisfaction and anticipation. It feels great to finally get that first big(ish) paycheck. It’s awesome to finally put your skills to use on something real, rather than a test. It’s nice to finally know what your career might look like. But starting a career, after investing so much energy and effort into the promise, can also be an occasion of apprehension, even dread, as the weight of the rest of your life settles on you. Work, like life, is often quite boring and monotonous and routine, and you’ll be doing it for the next 50 years or so in one form or another. It can be a heavy realization. “Is this it?” I remember thinking at times. “Is this is what I’ve been preparing for my whole life?”
No, it isn’t. That’s a lie. It was always a lie. And like most lies, it’s mostly true. Work is an important part of life. It’s a necessary and good part. It’s a way we can shape the world into something better, to turn the raw material of our time and talents into everything that brings order to the universe, expands our knowledge, and enriches everyone. It’s a method of building discipline, cooperation, and care for something outside yourself. It can provide part of your sense of purpose in life. A big part, in the right circumstances. But only part. Trying to make it everything will leave you with that sinking dread we often feel as the rickety boat of our career slowly collapses under a weight it cannot bear. It’s the feeling of missingness, like when there’s a question on the test that wasn’t on the study guide. We were told this is all we needed to know, all we needed to prepare for, all that would matter in life. But work can never have all the answers.
Neither can parenting, by the way. Piling all your hopes and expectations onto your kids will leave you just as frustrated and anxious and disappointed. Marriage, too. Anything, honestly. Nothing in this life can hold you afloat on its own. You have to set your sights on a higher ideal and build up all those other parts of life as interlocking supports beneath it.
Which is why it’s been so devastating to put work at the center of all our preparations. Maybe this disillusionment is part of the more recent turn toward activism in school, an acknowledgement that students need to learn more than marketable skills. But an attempt to turn economic man into political man is just as doomed to fail in its own way. We should prepare ourselves and our children to be active members of society (if not shrieking activists) just as we should prepare them for a productive career, but not because that will ever be enough for them.
The Goal of Growing Up
The goal of growing up is not to get a particular job or to change the world according to some vision. The goal is to become the kind of person who can succeed at job, who can make the world around them better at whatever level they engage, who can make friends and be part of a community, who can have a stable relationship and raise children, who can endure the hardships of life without breaking, who can navigate the vast and confusing world with purpose because they you where you are going. Maybe it sound tautological, but the goal of growing up is maturity. It’s a lifelong process.
You put all that time an effort, all those years of study and practice, into getting yourself ready to be a good doctor or lawyer or businessman or engineer or whatever, and still you probably felt unprepared. Would you expect it to take any less to be a good parent? Or a good friend? Or a good citizen? We all need to develop those abilities. It’s hard. It takes practice. You will fail, often. That’s what we call learning. And still you will never feel quite prepared for what life throws at you. Better get started.
Prepare Your Kids For What Matters
Wherever you are in life, you can start preparing to take on those often neglected roles, but as parents, it’s important to tell our kids (in word and deed) that their success will not be defined by the size of their paycheck or the satisfaction of their career. Their eventual marriage will be just as big a part of their lives as their lives as their jobs, so it’s necessary to help them become the type of people who can both maintain a relationship and be attractive enough (in every sense) to form one in the first place. Even if they never get married, the many other relationships will probably be a bigger source of satisfaction and happiness (or loneliness and despair) than which particular career they enter. So they need to practice relationships, to learn to deal with conflict, to become caring and empathetic, to gauge what behavior is desirable and what is not. It’s easy to think they are developing these skills naturally or at school with their peers, but that’s not necessarily the case. No one is telling them this. Did anyone tell you? They have to know it’s important, and you have to teach them.
It’s a lesson for all of us. Just as we went to grad school for our dream job or train for that promotion we want, we need to prepare for where we want to go, whether that is marriage or parenting or a leadership position. Work on being a better husband. Work on being a better parent. Work on being a better friend or leader or citizen. Give those other parts of your life the attention they deserve. Don’t go to work each day with that sinking dread, wondering if this is all there is. It isn’t. You know it isn’t. Put that truth to practice. Your kids need the example.
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