There is a story about an infamous Greek innkeeper who would stand at his door and invite passers-by to stay the night at his inn. If someone said ‘yes’, the inn keeper would then invite the person to lie down on the bed. The innkeeper would measure each person’s exact height carefully to ensure that the bed and the visitor matched. Now comes the rub! If too tall, he would chop off the ankles; if too small, he would stretch the visitor to fit the bed. You see there was only one bed and visitors had to fit that bed. Yes, it was an Ancient Greek myth but its message was clear.
Behind the images in the story lay a warning about the dangers of conforming to an inflexible style of behaving. There is only one bed and we must fit into it. We can spot how some people conform their behaviour to their peer group. They match, for example, their hair style to the group’s. Of course, it could be taking drugs because the ‘lads’ are at it. Often, conforming to others is a only a way of buying acceptance of the group. When it comes to career choice, conforming to the group is seldom a good way to make up one’s mind. Why? Because a career choice is about making a personal decision.
Here are a few sample scenarios of the difference between personal choice and the pressures to conform.
Pressures at Play
The pressures that play in a family set-up can be the back-drop to our behaviour. Take this student as a case in point coming up to a crucial examination yet goes on strike and downs tools. One possibility is that he/she is conforming to the ambitions of parents but to the exclusion of their own choices.
This issue is not clear to the student but neither the brains nor the personal desire of the student match that of the parents. The student may not be fully aware of this but the student’s body language is the clue: strike-action and down tools. Something is amiss! It is fair to say that the key issue is that the student clearly lacks any motivation. It’s the parents motive that is at play, not the student’s. When there is no personal motivation at the helm, the student lacks any desire to work. The student will hop on to any distraction that is around!
Hopefully, students like this will wake up to their true selves. A skilled and kind guide will orientate them to the career that will fulfil their gifts. And speaking of students, an article in The Irish Times (11 Jan 2016) looks at the drop-out rate in students of 1st Year in College (Third level) and discovers that it is at a 16% level. Sadly, in the ICT computer world, the level of drop out of first years is 20%.
There are many reasons for these statistics but we are looking at about 6,000 plus young lives full of hope yet they have not made good subject decisions, not to mention good career options. There is also money involved. The books, computers, living needs etc., and other costs will have mounted quickly to pay for this first academic year. While an experience of failure may wake up some students, for many others, the experience of failing crushes their hopes and brings confusion as to what went wrong.
I suggest a new focus is necessary. This focus may reveal one clear danger that lies behind such a high drop-out rate. I speak of conformity. We are back to the story of the innkeeper again. A student who has no clue what to do in college, may follow what the pals and gals are chatting about in their sixth-year school. The lads are choosing Commerce, so our brave student decides on Commerce too. Danger has loomed. There are plenty of places when we rightly conform for the sake of team spirit but career choice is not one of them. Personal choice is a must when choosing a life-long career. Inevitably, problems of personal motivation will appear soon and an early sign is that this student finds little or no drive to study. Without personal motivation the driving power to study is simply not there. It may look like a student is lazy or on strike but the culprit lies deeper than that!
Students at a Loss
So, of course the student needs information. Yes, students need preparation in how to make good decisions and the modern student needs a year of induction into college before launching into career studies. Presidents of our colleges are seriously grasping this nettle as they realise that students are finding the transition from secondary schools to Third Level problematic. This will be slow coming about. Our students also need clear career guidance persons, who have the skills to guide (but not tell) their students where to focus their minds and hearts.
It is not only an intellectual decision that has to be made by students because a life choice needs to take both head and heart into account. The student needs to consult the stuff of desire, what this student loves to do, what this student prefers doing when the choice is open. Our students need to look at their own history of where he/she has been drawn mostly to some activities and shunned others. An awareness of these strands reveals quite a lot!
Person or Things?
So to become aware of the heart, that is, what we truly want, it is wise to have a look at what really interests us. I can ask this question: have I been more interested in persons or in things as I look over my past activities and wants? As a younger person, did I spend more time mixing with people or have I been more interested in things? By ‘things’ is meant Lego, computer games etc. I can follow this trail right up to the present day! If one interest is stronger than another, it may reveal whether to veer towards scientific subjects for a career rather than the 'caring professions.’
Your answers need to be placed beside that pull towards conforming with the peer group. If there is a match between the two, that is excellent. If there is little matching up, then please follow your own star. You are not on that innkeeper’s bed, being forced into conforming to what others demand. It is your choice, your career. You will be living out your choice. Do not live out someone else’s! It seldom works out of well.
Another way of working out what you truly want and desire most is to observe your own interests/hobbies/sports. They develop and change but pay attention to what has been consistent right up to this day.
Another help is to look at who you admire. There is something that attracts you in the values you see in them, in your parents and the wider family! Chat with them! Have a glance at a friend or two and work out what values they have too.
Your heart reveals what draws you and what interests you actually follow, what values you aspire to, what people you admire. Now comes the moment to link them up to the reasons you have written down on paper for a possible career choice. And please write down these reasons on paper. You will have written down the reasons for your choice of career/subjects and your reasons against that choice.
This map of ‘head and heart’ is a sketch of what both your heart and head reveals to you about the choice you are about to make. Both head and heart are telling you whether there is alignment between you and the reasons for the choice in front of you. The next issue is as follows: are your reasons for deciding on that choice matching up with the leanings of your heart? If so, you have arrived at a personal choice that is valid and will see you through all the challenges you meet. If not, go back to the drawing board.
A sense of rightness can then confirm your choice. Firstly, your reasons are sensible. Secondly, a sense of peace, fulfilment, hope and a steady feeling of challenge are indicators that you are on the right track for a good choice.
Alan Mowbray SJ