University of Rwanda last week graduated 8,500 students. “Go therefore and change the world,” the graduates were told to the applause of families and well-wishers.
The assumption is that with your degree, changing the world is a piece of cake! With no script; no idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before, changing the world would be the most difficult task ever.
The unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about life is that there is no core curriculum. The entire experience is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. Let me be clear: college is something you complete; life is something you experience. It’s an expensive fact but, cheaper I would argue, than say the Marshall Plan that saved the world from World War II.
Of course your biggest liability at the moment is your need to succeed; your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of life. Success is a lot like a bright white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it. I don’t know what your professors told you but get it from a hustler: there is an upward climb and you need your best shoes.
The harsh reality is, there is no perfect job for you just yet. One of the greatest illusions in our world today is the idea that there’s some perfect job out there, waiting for you. The world of work is changing. As the world becomes more connected and less hierarchical, traditional career paths are shifting as well. Companies are getting smaller, not larger. Organisations are shrinking, and employers are outsourcing more and more, hiring contractors instead of employees as they look for ways to decrease their risk. Your life’s work will not simply be handed to you. You must create it.
The naked truth is that the job market isn’t great, and it probably won’t be getting any better in the foreseeable future. If the studies are true, by the year 2030, we will see over half the workforce functioning as freelancers, with no steady job but a portfolio of gigs that provide a living. This may not sound like good news to everyone, especially those who are less entrepreneurial. But it is. If you embrace this reality, you won’t have to settle for a position that doesn’t fulfill your potential. You can create the perfect job for yourself.
The second admonition is: don’t chase your dream (yet). Yes, I can see the frown on your face but hear me out. I often hear older people tell young people that the best thing they could do is chase their dreams. I beg to disagree because blindly pursuing your passion is the fastest way to the unemployment line. The world is full of dreamers who hate their lives and blame their bosses. Passion won’t save you from failure and it won’t protect you from economic hardship. Deferring your dream, though, as the proverb says, “makes the heart go sick.” So what do you do?
Serve someone else’s dream first! In other words, become an apprentice. Stop wasting your time in search of the perfect mentor and instead help someone else’s dream come true. I did this for two years, and it taught me more than a master’s degree. The world doesn’t owe you anything, least of all the privilege to do work you fancy. Chances are, there are already people out there doing it. So find them, help them, and learn from them. After acclimatising yourself with what the world offers, you will be ready to offer something back. Now you can chase the dreams!
My point is, live one day at a time. Eight years after my own graduation, I have come (gradually) to understand that the liberal education cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and how to construct meaning from experience. If you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. The real value of education is to teach: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, and imperially alone day in, day out.
So don’t crush under the weight of responsibilities and expectations. Whatever the situation is or seems to be for you, find a way to soar. If anything, when you are finally 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of great choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices.
The writer is a lecturer at The Adventist University of Central Africa