Heart of the Matter

Andy Chan's Blog for Parents, Mentors and Teachers


Value of a Liberal Arts education

I have been surprised by the number of college students and parents who question the value of a Liberal Arts education. Many who have chosen this path and speak this way undervalue themselves and undermine their own confidence and personal power. Many believe that employers don’t hire liberal arts grads, when in fact many employers prefer them for their communication, interpersonal, creative and analytical thinking skills.

As an MBA myself, I am a fan of business education – but not for everyone. Undergraduate business school is a great choice for some students, not every student. There are many other ways for college students to learn business skills and become attractive to employers without having to choose business as a major. Also, most top business schools accept more students with liberal arts or engineering academic majors than business majors.

A wise friend of mine, Ken Saxon, gave a speech to UCSB freshmen on the value of a Liberal Arts education. I simply had to share it with my readers. It’s an important perspective for any college student who is considering their choice of college or major (as well as for parents). He includes a reference to Steve Jobs moving, personal commencement speech at Stanford in 2005 (a ‘must-see’ video for anyone). I actually think Jobs’ words of wisdom are more powerful and relevant to hear before entering college than on graduation day (when choice of study has yet to be made, and the fact that many students don’t really hear what’s actually being said on graduation day – for a wide variety of reasons).

Ken, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

What Do You Do With a B.A. in History?

Talk by Ken Saxon to UCSB Freshman Seminar on the value of a Liberal Arts education:


“What do you do with a B.A. in English,
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree.
I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.”

That’s a cute song in a funny Broadway show, Avenue Q.  But it sends a message that’s quite different from what I’ve experienced in my own life.  I went off to college, and unencumbered by personal or parental concerns that I come out with a professional skill, I majored in History.

What did I do with a BA in European History?

  • I got myself a job in corporate finance at the largest real estate company in America.
  • I attended Stanford Business School.
  • I started and built a company that stores business files and records and expanded it up and down the West Coast.
  • I sold the business, and got deeply involved with community nonprofit organizations.
  • I founded and run a leadership and renewal program for nonprofit executive directors, and
  • I became Chairman of the Board of a local foundation working on global development issues, and recently went to Kenya visiting health clinics serving the poorest of the poor.

None of this journey (none of it!) was even a glimmer in my mind’s eye when I was sitting in a lecture hall in my freshman year at college.  Life journeys are rarely predictable, and they inevitably have lots of twists and turns.  It doesn’t hurt at all to head out in a certain direction –as a matter of fact, clear goals and ambition are a good thing — but to act with high confidence that you will end up where you plan to at the start of college is folly.

So if you buy into my premise about life’s uncertainty, what consequence does this have for how you approach your four or so years at a university like UCSB?  Well my talk this evening will explore the benefits of taking a liberal arts approach to college.  And if you already feel confident what your professional path will be, I’m going to encourage you to broadly explore a lot of other academic fields during your time here.

In this talk, I’m going to focus on three things:

1)  The purpose of a college education, and what the liberal arts is all about,

2)  The downside of focusing on college as a pre-professional or technical education experience, and

3)  I want to talk about some questions I think are fundamental to your education, and how a liberal arts approach to college can help you get some answers.

First, let’s talk about what college is for.  I think our society does many young people a disservice.  Kids constantly get the message that if they want to get at what life has to offer, they need to go to college.  Supposedly, according to the data, your income will be higher, you’ll be more likely to have a successful marriage, and more likely to live a happy life.

But then tons of young people head off to college – record numbers in the last decade – without really thinking about why, and what they want out of it.   That was certainly the case for me.  In my family, it was just expected that I go to college.  And I went to the best one I got into – Princeton.

So what would I say that the purpose of a college education is?  I’d start by saying that it’s about discovering who you are, what you’re passionate about, what’s important to you, and what doesn’t interest you in the slightest.  Answering such questions is a life-long journey.   But the fact is that this is a unique moment in your life.  [READ SLOWLY] Compared to your time here at UCSB, there will likely be no other time in your life when it will be easier to try so many interesting things, to find out what you like and don’t like, and be influenced by so many incredible potential mentors.

To me, college is a time for experimentation and paying attention. I can’t think of any way better to do all of this than by taking a liberal arts approach to college.

According to Wikipedia – and as a liberal arts guy, I love Wikipedia, that giant storehouse of general knowledge – “the term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike a professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization.”

So let’s pick that apart.  First of all, it makes clear what liberal arts is not:

– professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization.  I think they’re talking about a couple things here.  One is a type of curriculum – like pre-med or engineering – that focuses on specific learning to prepare for a certain kind of career.  The other part of this is specialization – a narrow approach to education, as opposed to a broad approach.  If you think about it, grad school is 100% specialized or focused in a certain discipline.  In college, in contrast, you have a choice as to whether you go narrow or broad.

In terms of what the liberal arts IS, the definition also says a few things.  First, it says that the approach imparts general knowledge – once again, broad over narrow.  But it says something else that’s really important, that it develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities.

So, what’s that all about?  I think they’re talking about things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and creativity.  They’re talking about complexity, and the ability to learn and adapt.

There’s no question a liberal arts education is a great place to develop your critical faculties, taking in a lot of information and making informed judgments about complex questions.  This is a skill-set that is integral to succeeding in the broader world, and certainly in my world of business and of leadership.

Now I know many of you are hearing other messages that really conflict with the liberal arts approach.  The University of California, as you know better than anyone, has gotten ridiculously expensive, and some of you may feel pressure – either personally, or from your parents – to get a good return on that investment by pretty quickly getting a good paying job.  And, of course, there are student loans to repay.  I also know what the economy is like right now, and that you may be more focused on developing marketable skills than you may have been just a few years ago.

But even if you want to go out and quickly make a good amount of money, I have some cautions about a pre-professional approach to college.

First of all, how can you be sure you know where the better paying fields are going to be in 5 years?  From my experience at Stanford Business School, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that the industry that everyone wants to get into one year is headed for a fall the next.  All the students in the late 80’s that wanted to get into real estate development.  CRASH!   The flood of students in the late 90’s that wanted to go into Internet startups.  OUCH!   How about the house flippers of a few years ago?  It all looked like easy money.  But that’s how markets work – tons of people and money follow such bullish signals, leading to a glut of that kind of business, leading to a hyper-competitive market, and then a crash.  It’s the nature of markets, and it has happened since the beginning of time.  So the question here is – even if you wanted to, how could you know the best fields for making money in the future?  Even pre-med students today can’t be sure of what the career path of a doctor will look like in the more than a decade it will take until they finish their residency.

Now, let’s say you want to go into business one day, as I ultimately did.  What would be the best preparation for that?  I can tell you that as a hiring employer, here are things I looked for:

Evidence of:

  • Initiative and leadership,
  • Work ethic,
  • Communication skills, and
  • Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

None of those is linked to a specific line of study.

It is true that there are some prospective employers who will be searching for narrow lines of study in their hiring.  But many, many do not.  When I applied as a senior in college for a newly created finance job at the world’s largest real estate development company based in Dallas, Texas, I don’t know what they thought when they saw I was a European History major from Princeton.  But I do know that something in my letter and resume led them to want to interview me, and somehow I was able to stand out from the six finalists they flew down to Dallas.  You can try to predict such things, but everyone’s different, and you just never know.  I found out later that the hiring manager – a high-level executive in a Texas-based global real estate company – graduated college with a B.A. in English.  Go figure.

I also want to ask how can you know what you like at this point in your life?  My experience is that people who like what they do, who love what they do, are much more likely to be successful at it, in addition to being happier.  And if you’re going to spend a third of your life working, why not like what you do?  Seems like a no-brainer to me.

So to pick the bulk of your curriculum now based upon your guess as to what you might want to do in the working world, when you really haven’t tried that many things and don’t likely know what will make you happy later in life, seems foolhardy to me.  If it turns out you’re wrong, you may have wasted a big opportunity.  Tons of my friends changed their majors, and tons have changed careers.  One of my best friends in business school went through med school first, only to discover that he hated it.  He didn’t want to quit, so he graduated – and then went to business school.  This stuff happens, and it may happen to you.

And so often the best things that happen to you, the things that make all the difference, happen by chance, or result from failure – not the result of careful planning.

I want to play something for you.  Who here has seen on the Internet the commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005?  It’s really quite an extraordinary talk, and I encourage you to watch the whole 15-minute Steve Jobs video sometime.  He tells three stories of his life, and I want to play the first one for you.

“I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?


It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.


And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.


It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:


Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.


None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, its likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.


Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

I shared this story with you NOT to encourage you to drop out of college – although it shows that that’s not necessarily the end of the world.  I mean, I’ve been to one of Steve Jobs houses, and I can assure you he’s no longer eating at the Hare Krishna temple.  No, I shared this story with you because it embodies an important point – that we can’t always understand or explain the practical purpose of our choices to others as we go along.  All we can do is listen to our hearts, follow our instincts and make the best judgments we can.  It’s all part of the experience of getting to know ourselves.

And that leads us back to some of what I suggested were the important life questions to make some progress answering while you’re in college?

  • Who am I?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What doesn’t interest me at all?

For me, embracing a liberal arts education was a great way to find some answers.

As part of putting this talk together, I did something I haven’t done in decades – I pulled out my college transcript.  It turns out I took courses in 16 different academic departments at Princeton.  Clearly, I took the liberal arts seriously!

So let me share a few examples of how these experiences in the liberal arts helped me learn about myself.

From studying philosophy, I learned that abstract theories were intellectually interesting to me, but not so satisfying.  Turns out, I’m a doer, an entrepreneur.  I had the same experience with mathematics.  Though I was good at it, once the classes got too deep into the abstract realm and I couldn’t figure out the real world application, I lost interest.

From working week after week with a pigeon in a Psychology lab, I learned about Behaviorism, where our habits and behaviors came from and how they can be molded.  It turns out that I love figuring out people, how they think and make decisions, and how to motivate them and bring out their best.  My studies of Psychology and the brain have helped me be a better employer, a better negotiator, and a better parent – and they’ve helped me better understand my self.

From studying history, I learned that every struggle my society and I are going through is not new, that I am part of a story much larger than myself, and I learned humility about my role in that story.  Interestingly to me, when I lost my bearings when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, it was from history that I regained my sense of perspective – reading about how other societies survived much greater horrors over the centuries.  It helped get me out of my own grief, and reminded me of the power of human resilience.

By writing a senior thesis and doing historical research leafing through primary source material in national archives in London and in Washington, I learned about how hard it is to understand the “truth” when relying on secondhand sources, like books and newspapers (and now on the Internet), where everything is filtered through other people’s perspectives and biases.  I also learned I was capable of original research, and of finding my own voice.  And just like the marathons I’ve run, writing a 130 page thesis built endurance and expanded my sense of my own capabilities.

And what of studying music and art and architecture and literature?  They helped me learn about what I find beautiful, and how that enhances my life.  A couple years ago, I finally got to Barcelona, Spain and see the Gaudi-designed buildings whose pictures amazed me in Architecture class almost 30 years ago.  It was a personal thrill.

Each academic subject is a window, a lens, through which to see the world.  As you broaden yourself, you will notice things you wouldn’t have noticed — you will appreciate things you would have completely missed – and you will meet and connect with more interesting people, possibly because you may be a more interesting person yourself!

And I don’t know if you all will value this or not, but as you broaden yourself, you will be able to be a much more productive citizen.  One of our biggest national problems is that we have become more self-focused as a people, and less able and willing to understand and care about others.  Taking a liberal arts education – for example, my classes in Politics, East Asian Studies, Religion and Sociology – made me a less provincial and more worldly person.  And the more connected you become to the world, the more you know and the more you care.

And by the way, one of the ways your generation is way ahead of mine is how global you are.  Many times more of you will study abroad than my peers did in college.  Were I in your seat right now, I would definitely study abroad, and I think it’s one of the most encouraging indicators in our country that so many more American students do so today.

One more suggestion – take classes from the best teachers you can find, no matter what they teach.  My experience is that they are the classes you will remember.  Every college has iconic professors who know who they are, why they are teaching, and who love to open young minds.  At Princeton, if you ask me the classes that most impacted how I see the world, they were not in my major.  One of them was a Civil Engineering class.  Why did I, a History major with no professional interest in science and engineering, take a Civil Engineering class?  Because fellow students I respected told me to.  They said David Billington was an incredible teacher.  Billington loved how structures like buildings and bridges, when designed well, could come to symbolize a place and its people.  His course “Structures and the Urban Environment” filled a 400 person lecture hall each spring.  One of our homework assignments was to walk across his favorite built American structure – the Brooklyn Bridge – and write about our experience of it.  Billington had a big impact on how I see my surroundings.  Now I don’t know who they are, but I know there are teachers like this at UCSB.  Find them and spend time with them.  They are the professors you will remember, and who will impact how you view yourself and the world.

Personally, I happen to be someone who loves to learn, so for me getting exposed by excellent teachers to varied subjects was a lot of fun.  One last encouragement for each of you, no matter what your field of study, is to go through the course offerings and take something off the wall that just sounds fun to you – not because it’s easy, not because you think it might get you a job, but just because it piques your interest.  This is the time to do it.  You are very privileged to be here at UCSB, and you have a unique opportunity.

Think forward.  In 15 or 20 years, many of you will be buried in responsibilities – work, family.  You may have a desire to expand yourself, to be a more stimulated and interesting person, to expose yourself to the new.   At that point in your life, it’s not impossible, but it’s really hard.

Here, it’s easy.  It’s right at your fingertips.  Don’t take it for granted.  This opportunity will be gone before you know it.

Good wishes to each of you on your journey.

Father’s Day

I have 3 awesome kids: Alex (16), Natalie (12 on July 5) and Angela (8).  I love them so much – words aren’t enough to describe the depth of my love for them.

I received a Father’s Day card from them today with a message worth sharing…

“What does it take to be a Dad?

Patience, Kindness, a Sense of Humor, Courage, Values, an Open Mind, Devotion, Hard Work, Loyalty…

and a Great Big Heart!

You’ve got it all, Dad.

Happy Father’s Day!”

I am humbled and thankful that my kids feel this way about me.  And I find myself wondering, How did I develop these traits?  And how will these traits be developed in my children?  I hope that my modeling positive behavior with them and with my beloved wife, Jessie, will be positive influences.  But I wonder if there’s more I can do.

Discussion question: How are you guiding your children to become great adults and parents?  What have you seen actually work?

Parents as Mentors

Allison McWilliams, Ph.D. and Wake Forest alumnae, is our director of the new Mentoring Resource Center at Wake Forest University.  She wrote the following to guide parents to effectively mentor their children, advice we are frequently asked for by parents of college students and recent graduates.

Can a parent mentor his own child? Absolutely, yes! In fact parents, often without realizing it, serve as informal mentors to their children throughout their lives, due to sheer proximity as role models; children watch their parents to see how they make decisions, how they deal with pressure and positive and negative feedback, as well as listening to their advice and guidance. However, should a parent take the extra step to more formally mentor his own child? It depends. This type of a relationship can be enormously rewarding, both for the student and for the parent. But it is a relationship that requires dedicated time and energy. Mentors, whether they are parents, community members, peers, or others, purposefully model certain skills, including:

  • Asking thoughtful and thought-provoking questions
  • Actively listening
  • Behaving as a role model
  • Providing objective feedback and guidance

If you are a parent who wants to serve in a more formal capacity as a mentor to your child, you should first ask if you are best equipped to fulfill this role. Is your relationship with your child one that will allow you to actively listen, to ask thought-provoking questions, and to provide objective feedback, without trying to “fix” the situation for your child, or to push him in the direction you want him to go (as opposed to helping him get to where he wants to go)? If the answer is perhaps not, then sometimes the best thing that a parent can do is to seek out another person to mentor the student. If the answer is Yes, then as with any mentoring relationship, there are some basic guiding principles:

1.      Set up regular one-on-one meetings that are dedicated to the relationship. Clearly, at this point you will need to get agreement from the student that he desires to take part in this process as well. Don’t force it.
2.      Set goals and a timeline for the relationship. How often will you meet? When will the formal relationship end?
3.      Facilitate a mentoring conversation during the meetings. A mentoring conversation is based on the principles of experiential learning:

  • What is the current situation? (Where is the student now?)
  • What is the desired state/goal? (Where would the student like to be in the future?)
  • What is the action plan to achieve the desired state/goal?
  • What happened? Why? What is the new current situation?

4.      Periodically evaluate the relationship. At the end of each meeting it is good to do a short “debrief”: What was discussed? What are the goals for the next meeting? Were the goals for this meeting accomplished? This provides both immediate feedback as well as clarity on next steps. Additionally, it is useful to take a step back every few months and evaluate whether and how the relationship is working.
5.      Bring closure to the relationship. Obviously, a parent is not going to “bring closure” to his relationship with his child. But there should be an identified end point to the formal mentoring relationship, whether it is six months, a year, two years, once the student graduates from college, etc.  Use this opportunity to celebrate what you have accomplished together, and allow the relationship to move into a more informal phase.

Some possible conversation starters:

  • Discuss the student’s favorite class, clubs and/or projects
  • Have the student write her “headline”: In 10 years from now, what will be said about her?
  • Work on a list of dream careers, and then find people in those fields to talk to about what their jobs are, how they got there and words of perspective or advice
  • Find a book to read together and discuss
  • Use examples from current events to talk about professionalism, leadership, ethics, character, values, decision-making

Some Mentoring Resources:
Ann Rolfe is an Australian who runs her own consulting business, and has an excellent website of resources. Some of it you have to pay for, but a good bit of it is free and worth checking out:

Look up “mentoring” on Amazon.com and you will find over 5,000 results, many of them quite good. Just to pick two worth checking out:

Use the career office – even after graduation

Listen to my interview with The Career Clinic (R) radio show to talk about the value of the career office and how students should think about using it.  Andy Chan on The Career Clinic

At Wake Forest, we continue to have many organizations contacting us to find summer internship and full-time candidates.  Call your career office or stop by this summer – even if you already graduated.

Advice for new grads… on NPR!

I was interviewed yesterday by Michel Martin for NPR with Louis Baraja, an author and financial planner.  I thought you might enjoy hearing our advice, as well as what we’re doing at Wake Forest.

Diploma In Hand, Grads Face Money and Career Demands

Do you have any other advice for new grads?

Andy – where are you?

If you’ve subscribed to my blog or just checked it out recently, you’re probably asking this question, “Hello, Andy – where are you?”  I have not been ill (although the North Carolina pollen has been tough for me), nor have I been in an accident.

I have been on the road speaking with alumni, parents and the press about our vision for personal and career development at Wake Forest University.  Over the last two months, I have visited New York City and the S.F. Bay Area three times each, Washington, D.C. twice, Philadelphia and Atlanta.  It’s been great as everyone is enthusiastic and supportive of our efforts.  Many of these connections have also offered internship and job opportunities for our students.

I have posted thoughts and comments to my Facebook fan page, LinkedIn and Twitter, so if you use those communication channels, you’ve received some of my thoughts as well as news and activities.

But I admit that I have not been focused on my blog.  I have dozens of notes that I have saved hoping to post to my blog for you to read.  I now realize that this approach isn’t going to work.  I keep thinking that I’ll have time to write a “perfect” blog entry.  That perfectionist mind-set is keeping me from writing anything at all.

I am going to try something new and blog more regularly – even if it means that my post is not “perfect”.  Please feel free to ask me questions and I’ll give you my opinion.  I’ll be here… and I hope you will be too.

College Senior Mistakes

This job market is unforgiving.  For the college senior who is job hunting now, there’s no margin for error.  Here are five common mistakes made by college seniors.  Knowing these will help you advise and guide your students to a more direct path to a successful job search.

1. Overusing the Internet – Students in this digital age think if they only apply to enough jobs online then someone will eventually want to hire them. But it’s actually quite difficult to obtain a job on the Internet due to the high volume of resumes submitted. The number one method to obtain a job is by networking. Still apply for the jobs online, but also find ways to network into the company so that you can ask to be introduced to the hiring manager. Your persistence and creativity to get in the door will make a difference.

2. Being Too Choosy –Many students get so focused on a specific job or organization that they don’t realize there are other roles and other types of organizations that might be really good opportunities for them. Check out anything that looks interesting, as there could be a diamond underneath. Of course, don’t take a job you know you’ll hate.  And remember that a first job is just that: a first job. You’ll be somewhere quite different in 5-10 years… ask anyone who is 5-10 years older than you.

3. Giving Up Too Early – Some students think that given the poor job market, it’s not worth the time to search for a job. This means that these less competition! And many organizations are now recruiting students this spring and through the summer. Our career office has more job postings and interviews going on now than last year. Our biggest problem right now is getting students to pay attention to these opportunities and apply for these jobs. Just like doing regular exercise – once you stop searching, it’s hard to get started again.

4. Mis-using the Grad School Option – For some people, grad school is a great option, but if you’re just doing it as a back up because you can’t find a job, it’s a very expensive back up. Grad school does not necessarily increase your job prospects – and the pressure can be even greater if you took on loans or don’t like your area of study and the types of opportunities it provides. Grad school can be intense, so it’s challenging to make time to “find yourself” or having time for self-reflection and job search. If you’re unsure, understand what the typical career paths are for graduates of the program you are considering and see if they appeal to you. If you’re under pressure, it’s best to take the time to get the information you need and make a well-considered decision.

5. Not using the college’s career office – Students don’t realize that their career office can help them develop a job search action plan, identify networking contacts, learn important job search skills, and significantly improve their resume and cover letter.  It’s amazing how out of every 10 resumes, only one or two are very good, but 8 out of 10 are terrible. Even if you had a poor experience with the office before, it may have new staff and services and most importantly, you’re in a new situation. What do you have to lose?

College Dreams – for parents of younger kids

I was recently asked to give a talk to parents, most of them with kids ages 5-16.  They asked for my observations of college and graduate students who struggle with college and career issues.  They were interested in identifying what they could do, as parents, to help their own children develop positive characteristics and behaviors to successfully navigate college and young adulthood.

We must first acknowledge that our children are growing up in very unique times and are very influenced by the times. In “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge, she writes “Like it or not, when you were born dictates the culture you will experience.  This includes the highs and lows of pop culture, as well as world events, social trends, economic realities, behavioral norms, and ways of seeing the world.  As in the words of a prescient Arab proverb, ‘Men resemble the times more than they resemble their fathers.’ ”

But that doesn’t mean we parents cannot influence their worldview at all.  We just need to be very conscious and deliberate about what we say and don’t say, what we do and don’t do (which communicates what we believe and value) and what we guide them towards experiencing and thinking.

Before we begin, let’s evaluate our own knowledge (or lack of) and beliefs about college and success.  The following facts are based on research by Jean Twenge, author of “Generation Me”.  Did you know that…

1)   75% of college freshman hope to earn an advanced degree?

2)   12% of college freshman want to be an doctor? Only 1% actually become one?

3)   In 1999, teens predicted they would be earning a salary of $75,000 at the age of 30? Yet the average income of a 30 year old in 1999 was $27,000?

4)   Even if you have a perfect SAT score and apply to Harvard, you only have a 50% chance of getting in?

5)   About 10% of applicants to Ivy League schools are admitted?

6)   The average GPA of admitted students at San Diego State is 3.5 and have SAT scores at the 67th percentile.  Not long ago, it was called a “party” school.

We need to be careful with what we’re communicating to our kids.  All the hard work, extracurricular activities, pressure and sleep-deprived nights will not guarantee college acceptance.  And college acceptance does not guarantee the good life (and not only in a recession – which most pundits think is going to feel like we’re in one for awhile, even if we don’t technically call it a recession).

There’s no arguing with the reality that life is much more difficult today than in 20-30 years ago.  From “Generation Me”…

“This is the scenario for young people today: To get a decent job, you must have a college degree, preferably from a good school.  It is harder to get into a good college, and more expensive to pay for it.  Once you get in and graduate, it is difficult to get into a graduate school and sometimes even more difficult to find a job.  Once you find a job, corporate downsizing and restructuring create the constant threat of layoffs.  By the time you’re in your thirties, career pressures are compounded by the demands of raising children when both of you have to work to pay the bills.”

“And although materialism has increased…that’s not why things are so financially depressing now.  These days, even the essentials are astronomically expensive: housing, health care, day care, and education costs have all far outstripped inflation.”

“ ‘You need a college degree to just be where blue-color people the same age were 20 or 30 years ago,’ says sociologist James Cote.’ “

Given these facts, we need to prepare our kids for a challenging, difficult future.  Going to a good college isn’t going to be enough. More than ever, parents need to play a big role in shaping their kids hearts, minds and souls.  (For those of you spiritually inclined, this is one of those ‘God-sized’ situations that I heartily recommend you ask for His help).

By the way, it’s not unreasonable to consider that your teen may not need to go to college.  For those who have strong mechanical skills working with their hands, they might be better off learning a skilled trade.  In America today, these skills are in high demand.  Think about how much some electricians, plumbers and fix-it folks charge you.  They could probably charge you even more and you’d pay for it.

Here are the types of traits I see in kids who struggle in college and post-graduate life:

  1. Not able to handle challenges, disappointment, failure.
  2. Not comfortable with venturing into the unknown and learning and trying new things.
  3. Not able to articulate likes and dislikes, preferences; Not able to articulate the core reason for their own feelings and opinions.
  4. Don’t want to plan ahead or take responsibility.  Would rather defer to parents or procrastinate until forced to decide or act.
  5. Uncomfortable and generally unwilling to ask for information and/or help from adults.
  6. Unwilling to work hard or strive to do great work; just try to get by.
  7. Selfish and self-serving; unconcerned about the needs and feelings of others.

No parents want their kids to exhibit these unproductive behaviors and attitudes.  Instead, there are positive characteristics that we must strive to help them develop:

1. Resilience – the world is rapidly changing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the top jobs in demand today didn’t exist six years ago; and today’s student will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38. Jobs today are not the hot jobs of the future. Recent events demonstrate this too.  Our kids need to be prepared for this new reality.  Young adults are stunned at how cold and cruel the world is.  In “Quarterlife Crisis” by Abby Wilner and Alexandra Robbins, one subject, Joanna, says, “College doesn’t prepare you for the real world emotionally…the environment in my first job was sterile, not nurturing and full of people who didn’t care about my welfare or happiness or well-being.”  What can parents do…

  • Allow their kids to try many things – even things they won’t be good at.  Allow them to experience failure.  Walk and talk them through it.  And love them all the way through it.
  • Talk about times that you experienced failure and made mistakes when you were a kid.  Tell them that you aren’t perfect.  Let them know that they don’t have to be perfect.
  • Don’t communicate that there’s only one perfect career for them.  Don’t get too enthusiastic about any specific thing they say “they want to be when they grow up”.  You may mislead them into thinking that they’ll let you down if they change their mind.  Instead, tell them that you’ll love them whatever they do.
  • Be careful not to say things like, “Do whatever makes you happy”; or “Follow your passion”; or “You can be anything you want to be”.  These are all phrases that aren’t very helpful because they are difficult to understand and near impossible to fulfill.

2. Curiousity, Inquisitiveness and Enjoys Exploring – When a child has a desire to gather information and have new experiences, they will be equipped to learn about all that college and young adulthood have to offer.  It’s a time to understand how the world works and how one shall fit in it.  Too many college students focus too early and are devastated when they find out that their chosen path isn’t what they planned.

  • Encourage them to try new things.  To do it on their own.
  • Get them to sleep more so that they have the energy and capacity to explore.  Tired kids don’t want to venture out and learn new things.  In “Nurture Shock”, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, “90% of American parents think their child is getting enough sleep.  The kids themselves say otherwise: 60% of high schoolers report extreme daytime sleepiness.  A quarter admit their grades have dropped because of it.  Depending on what study you look at, anywhere from 20 to 33% are falling asleep in class at least once a week…It is an overlooked fact that children – from elementary school through high school – get an hour less sleep each night than they did thirty years ago.”
  • Also from “Nurture Shock”, “the performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader.  Which is another way of saying that a slightly-sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a mere fourth-grader.”

3. Self-awareness – When kids know what they like, don’t like and why will help them identify and pursue interests and avoid things that don’t make sense – especially things peers or parents push them to do.  It’s amazing how many young people I meet who have no sense of who they are and what turns them on and off.

  • Ask open questions and listen.  Help them assess experiences and get to the essence of their feelings: “What do you like/dislike?  Tell me more about that.  What’s do you think is at the core of that feeling?”  Be silent and let them think about it.  Don’t rush it.  Do not push them to answer if they’re not in the mood.  Just re-visit at a later time when they feel like talking.
  • Don’t answer for them.  Don’t assume that you know – even if they’ve answered it before.  They are experiencing new things all the time and they are changing and discovering new things.  So let them change their answers if they want to.  Tell them that it’s normal and OK to change their mind.

4. Proactive and self-reliant – One goal that most parents share is for their children to be independent and able to take care of themselves by the time they leave for college.  Some parents struggle to achieve this goal because they want to “help” their children and unwittingly create kids who cannot handle tough situations and not able to plan and think on their own.

  • Teach your child how to plan and take action.  Don’t do it for them.
  • Encourage your child to take action in gathering information and resolving issues.  Don’t do it for them.
  • Don’t over-praise (advice from “Nurture Shock”):  your child become risk averse and concerned with image maintenance because they are afraid that you stop praising them.
  • Don’t over-reward (advice from “Nurture Shock”): they will not develop persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear (which could easily happen in college or on their 1st job).

5. Comfortable with adult relationships and conversations – Many students and young adults today make decisions independently or in the counsel of just their same-aged friends.  They are uncomfortable talking to adults from whose wisdom and perspective they could benefit.

  • Connect them with other adults and possible mentors.
  • Let them shadow your friends who have different jobs.
  • Role play the conversation you’d like them to have with other adults so that they can learn what a good conversation would sound like.
  • Tell them stories of how such conversations made a difference in your life.  Or  perhaps tell them that you wished you had done it when you were their age.

6. Strong work ethic, high standards and continuous learning – Performance is one of the major career assets that will help your child be marketable and employable throughout his/her life.

  • Grades are a by-product of having this attitude, not the goal.  Otherwise students believe that just getting good grades will lead to a college of their choice or a guaranteed job. In today’s competitive world, students with the best grades are not necessarily the most employable or most prepared for the work world.
  • Reinforce these positive attitudes and behaviors when they exhibit them.  Be specific about exactly what you saw them do and why it was an example of the attitude or behavior.  This specificity will enable them to clearly understand what you’re praising.

7. Compassion, generosity, purpose or meaning outside one’s self – Many young people are unhappy with their lives.  They aren’t fulfilled.  They aren’t happy.  Life is too hard.  Many have been set up to believe that life is supposed to be something it’s not.  Be careful with what you’re encouraging them to believe – given what you say and don’t say around them.

  • Life and work isn’t all about personal fulfillment, self-focus and satisfying selfish desires.
  • A job may not satisfy one’s every need and desire.

Remember that your child is not you.  Their life is not your life.  And their timetable is not your timetable.

I have received guidance from many experienced parents who tell me “Your relationship with your child is paramount.  Never do or say anything that endangers that relationship and trust.”

For me personally, I am not concerned about what college they go to or even if they go to college.  I am concerned about their character:  Their ability to independently handle and manage uncertainty, change and challenges; their self-awareness and clarity of purpose, beliefs and values; their willingness to explore, learn and ask others (especially elders) for help and perspective; their self-confidence and desire to deliver high quality work, results and strive to continually learn and improve; their compassion and desire to help others.  With these traits, I am pretty confident that they’ll be fine – no matter what the world throws at them.

I hope that my thoughts helped you think a little differently about your role and responsibility as parents of kids in the 21st century.  It’s a daunting task, but I am confident that you have the tools, mind and heart to succeed.  Just make sure that you are crystal clear on how you will define success and what it really looks like.

Job Search Tips for Seniors

It’s a challenging job market, but don’t give up. There are still jobs out there and more come through our career office every day. Some tips to help you succeed…

1.  Prepare your pitch. Put together your story for why you’re the best candidate for each job opportunity. Make sure your cover letter and resume are effective. Practice your interview answers – out loud with another person, preferably a career coach or counselor. Go to the career office for guidance and feedback. It’s OK if you’ve never gone there before.  They see hundreds of students just like you every year.

2.  Get off campus. Employers hire people, not paper. The best way for a potential employer to get to know you is to meet you in person. Your internet application or email with your resume attached won’t be nearly enough. Informational interview a lot and meet lots of new people. Ask your friends, family, professors and career office for people to meet and learn about organizations and career paths – even ones you’ve never heard of before. Find out how to tap into the alumni network via the college’s alumni directory, LinkedIn and/or Facebook.

3.  Don’t give up. Most students are not aware of the time required to get a job. It will likely take 6 months of active job searching, over 100 informational interviews and 30 formal job interviews. Most seniors get their jobs AFTER graduation – even in a strong job market. So, don’t give up too soon. Otherwise, you may miss out on the one job that’s waiting for you.

4.  Grad school is not a great back-up option. It’s an expensive option. If grad school aligns with your long term vision AND you are motivated to go, then it’s a good option. But it’s a dangerous option if you’re thinking that you’ll go there for “safe haven” to figure out what you really want. If you had trouble figuring that out in college, it’s likely that you won’t in grad school either (it’s pretty all-consuming). Take a break from school, explore your interests, and if grad school makes sense, reapply next year. You’ll be more motivated and have a clearer sense for why you’re really there.

Your career as a chess board

Look at your career as a chess board, not a dart board. In chess, you cannot win the game in one move. It takes multiple moves to achieve your objectives. It takes patience. You don’t control how long you must wait before you move again. Each move opens up new opportunities, some you don’t see until after you’ve landed on the next space. After you move, the game changes so you must be creative, nimble and flexible to adjust to the new environment. Sometimes, you need to go backwards before you can go forwards.

You may wish that your career was more like playing darts. See the bullseye, aim and throw. You have immediate feedback. If you don’t like your throw, you pick up another dart and throw again. Be careful if you treat your career like a dart. Your resume won’t look too good.

Think chess, not darts – and you’ll set yourself up to win the career game.