Stop Asking "What's Next?"

This whole article is inspired by this recent video uploaded by Kati Morton, a licensed therapist who makes YouTube videos about mental health and therapy (a channel which I highly recommend). In the video, Kati implores people to stop asking people “What’s next?” after completing a milestone, and instead spend time congratulating people on how much they have already achieved. This topic really resonates with me, especially as a young adult who is a little more than a year away from graduating college (Eek!) and constantly answering questions along the lines of “So what are you doing after college?”

On one hand, I understand the motivation behind the questioning. Obviously, I am not putting this much time and money into a degree only to have a piece of paper framed on my wall. I am achieving a degree in order to go on and do other things. Whether someone gets a degree in something they’re passionate about or just for better career opportunities, there is some sort of bigger plan in mind. An example of this is when people tell me what their major is, I usually ask why they chose that major in particular. This usually leads to the topic of “What do you want to do with that degree?” We all get excited about envisioning the future, and we want to share in each other’s excitement.

The problem comes when that excitement turns into anxiety. The future is a big and vague place, and although there are plenty of ways for things to go right, I (and many other people) find myself more often imagining ways it can go wrong. So, when people constantly ask me what I’m doing after college, I find myself more annoyed than anything else. In the past, I felt young enough to comfortably wave off these questions as I had no clue what I was doing after college--especially when these questions came right after committing to Seattle University. Come on people, I hadn’t even graduated high school and you’re asking me about what I’m doing after college?

However, I now find myself answering questions about the future a bit more candidly and seriously. I fully recognize that my plans could be changed by a number of life events and/or changes in interest, but it would be foolish to have no idea whatsoever of what life could look like post-grad. Right now, I am entertaining the idea of grad school, so keeping up my GPA is more important to me than if I knew for sure that I would never go to grad school. I have a vague idea of where I want to go, which influences my decisions right now, but I don’t think it’s confining. Maintaining a high GPA opens me to more opportunities, whether or not I actually end up pursuing them. My knowledge of where I may want to go keeps my options open rather than narrowing them down.

And really, I think this points us to the biggest problem with asking “What’s next?” We tend to assume that the answer to this question is a blueprint of how we are going to get from Point A to Point B, and then to Point C, D, and then Point “Marriage and a house in the suburbs and 2.5 kids”. We feel pressure to have an answer that aligns with our culture’s norms, and when we don’t have the proverbial roadmap to get there, we may feel that we stand out compared to others. Depending on where you live and how normalized certain ways of life are, you may very well stand out. Kati Morton talks about this in her video, and how when people ask her what’s next, they usually ask about kids. Kati mentions that she and her partner are not interested in having kids, and how that line of questioning automatically assumes that they do. It can be frustrating to be asked what’s next when you don’t even know what you want your endpoint to even be. In the grand scheme of life, the only thing we know for certain will happen is our death. When people ask me what’s next, I am tempted to answer snarkily, “I don’t know, but eventually death!” but that would probably weird people out too much.

This is why I agree with Kati that it’s time we start focusing on the accomplishments of right now. Nothing in the future is guaranteed, but living in the present helps us stay mindful and typically, happier than agonizing over the unknown. Plus, celebrating our accomplishments helps encourage gratitude, which is associated with better life satisfaction and mental health. And celebrating other’s accomplishments rather than prodding them to move onto what’s next helps foster a supportive environment rather than a judgmental one. This doesn’t mean that we aren’t making any plans for the future or that we are content with remaining stagnant. We act on the limited knowledge of where we want to go and keep ourselves ready for whatever life throws at us next, at least to the best of our ability. If we are asked the dreaded “What’s next?” hopefully we can keep our eyes on the open-ended journey in front of us. Then, we can resist the pressure to force our nuanced lives into an illusory plan of linear development. Our lives are not linear, and neither should be our plans.