A Big Part of Life is Getting it Wrong

I have a friend whose philosophy of life is: “In the end, people do what they want.” When you first hear these words, they seem a bit cynical and narcissistic. We quickly interpret the words to say, “In the end, I get what I want.”  That’s not what he means.

His expression is actually much more about choices, both good and bad. We often talk about the things we are planning to do in life. Some are very ambitious, others not so much. Those of us who work with students have seen this pattern for years. High school students coming to college typically have exhausted themselves attempting to make choices they are not ready to make. We press them to decide on a major and a career path. In reality, a large portion of them have it wrong when they start out. First-time college parents find this to be quite disconcerting. Those with experience from previous children seem to get it more often. They’ve seen the pattern before – self-discovery is part of the educational process.

Eighteen year olds have a hard enough time selecting basic classes, choosing an initial set of co-curricular activities and navigating life with a roommate who is a bit different. Asking them to outline a path for the next 40 or so years is simply unrealistic and often counterproductive. The educational experience is a journey; too often we want to reduce it to a simple set of choices. The basic classes we choose sometimes lead to a realization that the intended major is no longer desirable or feasible. The choices in co-curricular activity shift as interests mature and new opportunities are explored. An experience with a roommate offers lessons in teamwork, negotiation and even conflict resolution, along with the choice to hang in there.

This is where my friend’s philosophy comes into play. Most young students will be compliant at first and do what others want. We’ve taught them to do this very well. You can tell when they start asking about the rules – Will that be on the test? Do you take-off for spelling? Can we work together on this assignment? When things go wrong and performance on a test, paper or project fails, they retreat into argument about the fairness of the rules or the conditions – “Everyone failed that test. It was so hard.”  “He never covered that in class.” “The others in the group didn’t do their work.” Our educational system is highly juridical following a pattern of rules, argument, judgment and appeal. If we reduce it any further, students will be asking for lawyers, not guidance counselors.

Our current policy discussions regarding education seem not only to be reinforcing this approach, but also extending it. We would like a one-size-fits-all in a highly efficient system, with predictable and successful outcomes as measured by standardized tests. It’s a nice idea. In fact we know how to design such a system. We can write it down, pass it out, tell people they are accountable for the results, reward success and punish failure. The problem is not the system. We are the problem. Our search for what we want is incompatible with a system that forces choice and demands compliance.

Despite the best of intentions, we sometimes make unfortunate choices. Sometimes we do what we want or at least what we think we want. Once in a while, what we want changes. There may be immediate or latent consequences, but that is part of life. Over the arc of time, we discover what we really want or what we really wanted all along. The problem is the characteristics that define humanity are not facilitated or tolerated by our closed systems. We have decided it is inconvenient and inefficient to allow for missteps, wandering, bad choices and consequences. Most of us later in life tell the stories of how we got it wrong when we were young, and then express intolerance for the generation that follows when they seek the same privilege. They deserve the same courtesy we enjoyed.

In the end, people do what they want. We make choices. It would be great if everyone made excellent choices right from the start, but we don’t. A big part of life is getting it wrong.

About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



2 responses to A Big Part of Life is Getting it Wrong

Denise Mandi says:

Mark, what you’ve said is so true! I’ve always thought that it is unrealistic to expect 18 year olds (or 50 year olds, for that matter) to know what they want to do with their lives. My husband Vince & I tried to tell our three sons to approach college as a testing ground. Two of the three entered Central with majors declared. Our eldest changed major in his junior year & instead of becoming a composer, he’s heading to California for graduate school in acting. Our middle son declared in his sophomore year and continued to “sample” career paths until landing in law enforcement, and our youngest, who had been positive for years that he’d become a theoretical physicist, changed his major after 1 semester to biology, with his eye on med school. I wholeheartedly agree with encouraging our young people to explore the many possibilities that are before them. You can’t choose a life path if you’ve only walked down one road! I believe that the happiest people are those who keep sampling what life has to offer. I’ve known many people who’ve spent large chunks of their lives doing what they thought was expected of them, never what they wanted to do. These people are often full of regret. Life offers us something different with each morning. Shouldn’t we all try to be open to those new possibilities?

Martha Richardson says:

So pleased that Mark:My Words is back!