The Big Question
When I first began mentoring college students, I thought it was simply a coincidence that the students I was meeting happened to be consumed by the same nagging question. As more and more students shared the same concerns with me, I noticed that individuals with very different personalities and backgrounds were all grappling with the same question. It could not be a coincidence. Rather, the mind of the young thinking, feeling, growing person naturally gravitates towards the fundamental question: What is my life’s direction?
This question is expressed in various ways:
- What major in college should I choose?
- What profession should I enter?
- What will I do after college?
- What am I going to look like ten years from now?
The sense of freedom and independence that accompanies our arrival at college is not the only feeling that comes along with us. In the back seat sits another feeling — the feeling of worry about figuring out what I am going to do with my life.
I want to share with you the most effective approach to answering this question. Having the answer will make the college experience (and life!) far more valuable and enjoyable.
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The Overwhelming Choice
When I visit New York City, I like to pick up my favorite collectible: those silly, small ceramic New York Yankees dolls with the bobbing head attached to the body with a spring (the ones that cab drivers like to place on their dashboards), known as “bobbleheads”. As the car moves, the head bounces around in reaction to the turns and bumps of the car. For many, this doll encompasses the college experience, where we bounce around randomly between classes, majors, and career possibilities, our heads constantly bobbing in reaction to the many thoughts, options, and opinions that sway us.
I remember the moment I received the course catalog during orientation for my freshman year in college. I looked through the catalog feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of options. I was enrolled in a liberal arts program that was supposed to “empower” me in life, but instead I felt disheartened, not knowing what to choose.
Barry Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice, describes one of the ultimate dilemmas in life: an overwhelming amount of options. The primary indicator of freedom may be quantified in terms of a person’s ability to choose. That is, freedom is measured by the degree to which a person is free to choose. In today’s world, people in free countries have more options than ever before in human history. From the variety of products that one finds in the local grocery store to the vast opportunities for career choice, the world has never been a place of such abundant options.
However, today’s world surpasses the rest of history in another area: our overall sense of well-being has never been lower. Depression today is ten times as prevalent as it was in 1960, and it strikes at a much younger age. Almost seventy years ago in America, the average age of initial onset of depression was 29.5. Today the average age of initial onset is 14.5. Issues of low self-esteem have never been as rampant. In America, the leading prescription drug type is the anti-depressant. Divorce rates are higher than they have ever been. Domestic violence, acts of aggression, and unwanted pregnancies are at all-time highs. The list goes on and on.
What is the reason for this phenomenon? Why is it that while a majority of the population of the world experiences an unprecedented level of freedom, universal measures of well-being have never been so low?
Having the freedom to choose is essential to a life of happiness, but having too many options from which to choose tends to lead to poor decision-making, anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction.1 The time and energy expended in considering and pursuing multiple options detracts from our overall freedom and well-being.
Although the notion may seem counter-intuitive, limitation of choice can be the very thing that produces the ultimate freedom and well-being in life.2
One significant factor contributing to this phenomenon applies to the vast majority of college students, and it is one that every college student must confront: lack of direction. The wealth of options out there makes it difficult to find my direction in here, inside of me.
Whenever I speak with college students, I find that most feel paralyzed, overwhelmed, and consumed by the myriad of options facing them. They tell me that if somehow they could eliminate a lot of the options, it would become much easier for them to choose.
How, though, do we limit our options and thereby increase our happiness and well-being?
The answer is that inside each one of us is a compass that points us in the right direction. Let’s call it our inner compass. This inner compass can filter out the options that are not relevant to our lives and to give us clarity in every decision we need to make. How exactly does this inner compass accomplish this? Just like the magnetic force of the earth causes the needle of a compass to point to the north, my strengths direct me towards those options that are most fitting for me, helping me navigate all major life choices, especially my career choice.
A life of true greatness and happiness is achieved only when I can figure out how to make the choices that are consistent with my essential self.
College is, for many, the first real taste of freedom and individual expression. The experience would be much more powerful and effective in establishing the foundation for future success and well-being if the student would form a clear and confident vision of how to spend his college years.
All living things share the tendency to grow, to develop, and to realize their potential, humans included. Within each of us is a kind of internal compass that directs us along the paths that lead us toward becoming the best that we can be. That internal compass provides us with a sense of what is right for ourselves. To the extent that we follow its guidance, we are able to live authentically, in harmony with our unique and individual selves. Our strengths represent our alignment with that internal compass. Our personal combinations of interests, natural capabilities, and preferences signal them. It is when we put them to use in our lives that we feel most authentic, energized, and fulfilled, confident that we are being who we were meant to be. Each person’s greatest potential for growth is in the area of his or her greatest strength.
What happens when people operate from their strengths? They are more effective and more fulfilled. In the workplace, where we spend so much of our lives and where our strengths can be so clearly expressed, employees are six times more likely to be engaged in their role when their job requires them to use their strengths.3
Gallup’s research indicates that people who are not operating from their strengths at work tend to:
- Dread going to work
- Have more negative than positive interactions with co-workers
- Treat customers poorly
- Tell friends they work for a miserable organization
- Achieve less on a daily basis
- Have fewer positive and creative moments.4
When we live our lives according to our strengths, we thrive. We are happy, energized, relaxed, and we celebrate our many successes. There are various reasons given for why so many people do not live according to their strengths. One of the main reasons, and the one I hear most often from students, is that they simply do not know their strengths. They lack the awareness, sensitivity, and self-knowledge required to identify their unique abilities and character traits.
How To Discover Your Natural Strengths
Some people are endowed with profound clarity about who they are, and their strengths are obvious to them. Most people, however, need a little (or a lot) of help in uncovering their true areas of strength. A good mentor, friend, or coach (and a parent can be any of those!) can help. There are also valuable resources available that can help us find our strengths:
- The VIA Institute on Character (www.viacharacter.org) offers the free VIA Survey, a scientifically validated strength assessment for adults. Detailed reports provide strategies on how to use your strengths at work, at school, and in relationships.
- The Clifton StrengthsFinder (www.strengthsfinder.com), the culmination of more than 50 years of Dr. Donald O. Clifton’s lifelong work, has led millions of people around the world to discover their strengths.
- The Reflected Best Self Exercise (www.reflectedbestselfexercise.com) enables people to identify their unique strengths and talents. Each participant requests positive feedback from significant people in his or her life and then synthesizes it into a cumulative portrait of his or her “best self.”
The decisions we have to make upon entry to college can be daunting. The course catalog is hundreds of pages long, overwhelming us with confusion, uncertainty, anxiety. How am I to choose my major and my career path, with so many paths in front of me? If I pick one path, I’m automatically rejecting hundreds of others, and maybe one of those hundreds is the correct path for me! How can I feel confident that I am making the right choice?
With a little detective work on the self, I can discover the innate strengths that empower me, and make wise decisions based on them. Personal discussions, online resources, and seeking the guidance of a college or career counselor are effective avenues not only for choosing a career but for discovering the strengths within me that will be the guiding light for all of life’s major decisions.
Dr. Yosef Lynn is Dean of Students at The Dr. David Robinson Institute of Jewish Heritage. He is also an author, Career Discovery Coach, adjunct professor of Positive Psychology, and the founder and director of “Greatness Within Seminars”. He holds a Doctorate in Human and Organizational Psychology (PsyD) from Touro and earned a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the founder of the field of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman.
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- Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.
- Schwartz, B. (2000). Self-determination: The tyranny of freedom. American Psychologist, 55(1), 79-88.
- Rath, T. (2007). StrengthsFinder 2.0. New York: Gallup Press, p. 12.
- Ibid., p. 12.