Defy Your Parents' Expectations: Why Self-Discovery in College is Overrated

Western society has taught us that college is the time to find out who we are. As young, emerging adults, we’re sent off with an overpriced textbook and the notion that we must “discover ourselves” away from home with nothing but the guidance of newly found freedom and a college’s education. After all, aside from landing a reasonable salary after graduation, isn’t that what college is all about? People spend their first years taking European film courses, joining alternative clubs and participating in protests, even when they may not know completely what’s being picketed. We’re supposed to pinpoint our political beliefs, whether we stand firmly behind a single religion, work through any frustrating moral gray’s, decide on a career that suits us and maybe even find that one perfect person to spend the rest of our lives with. It can be hard, even scary, to have so much pressure weighing on us to figure out who we are and who we’re going to be for the rest of our lives. So, is it really healthy and necessary to put so much strain on someone to have herself all figured out by the time she’s out of college? And is it even a good idea to consider yourself completely discovered at any point, no matter how “established” you may be? Confucius and ancient Chinese wisdom will back me up when I say no.

Figuring out who you are and who you’re going to become can be liberating. You have the entire world at your fingertips, and you get to attack your future however you see fit. You have the most freedom to explore that you’ve probably ever have before, you’re more or less locked into a single career/life track. And that’s where a big chunk of the stress kicks in. What if we can’t figure out what we really like, stand for, value? What if we sell out? What if we never find passion in our work? What if “finding ourselves” isn’t as easy as our parents said it would be? These concerns are common. Very few people find it easy to decide on a future and career that both allows for the sustainability of the lifestyle they desire, and through which they can find passion and fulfillment. Even the most secure, self-defined and confident individual can struggle with choosing the right educational path, career, relationship goals, etc.

So why is this? Why is it so difficult for most people to figure themselves out and find appropriate professional and emotional matches? Well, self-discovery isn’t two-dimensional. It’s not right or wrong, black or white. Nobody is either one thing or another in any regard, and our innate complexities make it difficult to pinpoint who we are completely as individuals while trying to be individualistic, authentic and also true. Confucius recognized this element of human nature to be a sort of “glorious mess,” within people. And he embraced it.

The key is to recognize that people are inconsistent with regard to many things. We’re always changing because we’re always learning. And this is good because it means we’re growing. We’re bettering ourselves. Over time we’re only more experienced and knowledgeable. And it is unreasonable to expect a twenty-something-year-old to understand herself completely when she doesn’t have the years behind her to showcase a level of experience, awareness, exploration and knowledge necessary for completely self-informed decision-making. Sure, she may have enough experience to make a reasonable decision about her future that will work down the road regardless of whether she’s a completely different person. But to put so much weight on complete self-discovery and identification can lead to unattainable expectations in understanding the self, which is unhealthy. I think it’s important to let college students know that they don’t have to have it all figured out. Ever. And while a fitted major of study and a career path do matter, there is still room to reassess and redirect if things don’t feel right. Expect change and embrace it as best you can because progress matters too.