Giving Students a Compass

High school, perhaps more than any other stage of life, may be the most confusing and overwhelming. It is a no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood. Students are eager for independence and adult experiences but not yet emotionally ready to handle the burden of the accompanying responsibility. The pressure to start taking life seriously is high. Most do not feel prepared to face the uncertainly ahead and few have a very clear idea about what they want to do with their lives. What they need is a compass.

Schools seek to prepare students with a general and functional education. Laying firm foundations in basic math and verbal competence are crucial life skills. A broad fundamental knowledge of science, history, literature, philosophy and civics are essential for building the critical thinking skills that enable students to distinguish fact from fiction, appreciate diverse perspectives, and envision solutions to complex problems. Exposure to the Arts connects them with their own humanity.  And advanced placement, technical, or trade subjects help prepare them for their first steps beyond high school.

Of all the subjects taught in school, however, the study of self may be the most critical for preparing students to make strategic decisions about whether those first steps will move them in a direction that’s right for them. Such a study would encourage and challenge students to explore questions like:

·         What’s really important to me?

·         What do I want out of life?

·         How do I want to contribute?

·         What do I do well?

·         How do those abilities and aptitudes have value?

·         And, how can I consciously leverage those abilities to create the future I want?

Unfortunately, few schools do much to encourage and support such self-inquiry. It is a tragically missed opportunity to set students up for success. While most students easily identify what interests them and in which subjects they most excel. Few understand the innate talents that drive those interests and aptitudes.

In their book, First, Break All the Rules, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman describe “talent” as “nothing more than recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can be productively applied.” More than being good in math or an excellent competitive athlete, talent is the underlying love of precision and need for accuracy or the compulsion to make everything a comparison against which to measure performance. Talent is the intersection between the unique ways in which we use our minds and the savvy to apply those unique patterns and aptitudes strategically in the right context.

Because our patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are so automatic to us, we often fail to recognize their value. This is particularly true of adolescents struggling to find their own identity. Parents, teachers, and coaches can help students recognize their innate abilities by highlighting them in their every day efforts. “Hey Son, I have to organize some content into a marketing brochure for work and I need your help figuring out the design. You’ve always been good at spatial planning and have a excellent eye for visuals. Remember when you were 8 and…And then that time in middle school when…” Or, “Caitlyn, I want to thank you for your contribution to class discussion yesterday when we were debating opposite perspectives of X. You were able to see the common agenda in the opposing sides that no one else saw. It was like the argument you presented in your last essay assignment when you…”

When students recognize their unique patterns of thoughts, feeling, and behaviors and appreciate how those patterns have value, it provides a clearly defined compass around which to guide their decision-making and allows them to act from a place of confidence and strength.  This bolsters self-esteem in who they are and calms insecurities about who they are not.  It allows space to appreciate--rather than envy or resent--the talents of others, which opens up greater opportunities for collaboration.  Anchored by an awareness of how they learn best, students can consciously develop more effective strategies for mastering content and concepts. When facing challenges or choosing a major or career path, this compass empowers them to monopolize on what they do best.

Encouraging self-inquiry also helps students identify what truly matters to them. It helps them distinguish their own goals and expectations from those of parents, peers, and society in general. By challenging them to define what they want from life, how they want to contribute, and relating that to what is uniquely theirs to offer, we empower them with the clarity and confidence to formulate their own goals. When they can formulate goals that are authentically theirs, they are personally invested making their commitment stronger and more enduring.

Self-inquiry and the resulting self-awareness isn’t an absolute solution to the question, “What do I want to do with my life?” It’s a tool. It’s a powerful and necessary compass by which to navigate the uncertainly that accompanies their first steps into their own futures and every step after that.