You sit in class. The bell rings. You turn in another assignment with a clearly defined grading rubric. Then one day, the assignments and tests are over and you’re done with school. Now what?
I struggled for a while with the “Now what?” even dropping out of college 3 times. And during my winding path through undergrad and into the so-called “real world,” I realized that there were several myths I needed to unlearn from school to be successful on my own terms.
Myth #1: You need to find your passion first and follow it.
When I would meet someone further along in their career, I used to think, Wow, that person has it all figured out. Obviously, they had a penchant for talking to animals when they were five, graduated to vet wannabe at nine, and twenty-five years later, they’re a director of ecology and conservation. They knew what they always wanted to do! And here I was, a failure because I still had no idea what I wanted to do.
You’re taught in school that you need to find a passion first before jumping into a field, a career, anything. That led me to many a sleepless, anxious nights, trying to wring out what the heck my passion actually was and how I would find a clear, linear path towards it.
Surprise surprise. You can’t think your way to a passion.
Then one day, during a coffee shop conversation, someone I considered a mentor said, “Just take it one step at a time.” I was dumbfounded by the uncertainty of this plan. Clear, linear path. Remember?
What I then realized was that I was already taking it one step at a time. Because I wasn’t following my passions, I was following my curiosities.
Following a thread of curiosity is far more useful and productive than hitting your head against the wall, hoping for a passion to fall out. It gives you something to do, but also keeps you open to possibilities that you may not have even thought of when you first started.
Eventually, I found a passion and a purpose, and yes, it’s still evolving. One thing’s for certain – it’s already far different than the narrow vision I once had. Uncertainty and moments of clarity are both a part of life. What’s important is to take a step, reflect, and correct your path to what feels right for you as you go. Action creates inspiration and passion.
So follow your curiosities, not your passion. You can only connect the dots looking backward, not going forward.
Myth #2: Getting an “A” in everything is more important than catering towards your strengths.
You’ve probably heard the term “well-rounded” in school. Play an instrument. Play a sport. Volunteer. Maybe you’ve been praised for it or felt the pressure to be SCUBA certified, win 15 gymnastics medals, and play the French horn with your toes, all while keeping up a 4.0 GPA.
There’s nothing wrong with doing any or all of these things, but it’s the pressure to be good at every single thing that isn’t useful in the real world. It’s fine to be good at only a few things. (Actually, it’s great.) What matters is putting in the time to really build and hone those natural strengths and skills.
This might mean you have a knack for listening to people and finding what they need, or you love the storytelling process and the detail that goes into editing a video, or you find numbers and formulas intriguing. You probably aren’t brilliant at all of these, and that’s OK. Find the one you’re best at and go with it.
Pinpoint those strengths, build on them, and find ways to make them work for you.
Myth #3: You have to know something before doing something.
In school, you read a textbook and then do a project or assignment to confirm that you have learned what was in the textbook. Or you listen to a lecture and pass a test with all the pre-approved answers. There is an assumption that you need to know something before you can do something.
When I first entered college, I was jaded from my last two years in high school and what I perceived to be a meaningless race to increase an arbitrary GPA by pandering to a teacher’s approval. So I started college classes determined to keep a fresh attitude. I wanted to learn for learning’s sake and take on projects as problems to solve, not artifacts to be graded by a professor. It turns out this approach works well in the “work world.”
At the beginning of your career, you don’t have much expertise. You don’t have the 3-5 years of exact experience that a job might demand. You might not have the particular knowledge needed when you’re working at a new role. That’s okay, as long you’re honest about it and committed to figuring anything out that will make you successful in the role.
You aren’t being graded; you’re trying to solve a problem. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” Because it’s while doing something, while figuring it out, that you learn, improve, and ultimately, gain expertise.