With online graduation ceremonies in full swing around the country, I can’t help but imagine the struggle young people are facing between the zeal of stepping out in the adult world and the anxiety resulting from doing it in the middle of one of the most devastating times in history. I envision each tiny Zoom frame overflowing with a swirl of grand emotions broadcasted on the world stage, hiding behind bright smiles and anxious dreams. It transports me to my 22-year old self, and the trepidation resulted from grappling with the unfamiliar territory of staying true to my heart or choosing the security of paved paths and guided roads. Do I settle into this undying paradox, or do I need to pick a side, and if so, which one?
Education is about self-discovery — like a paint-by-numbers portrait, slowly uncovering the things that ignite our spirits.
I think of young minds flocking to LinkedIn to update their statuses, looking for their post-graduation internship or first full-time employment. Scrolling through the list of recommended jobs, I imagine them feeling vulnerable and scared, yet hopeful and audacious. Post-secondary education encourages students to reach for greatness within the systems that serve us — to be the leaders of tomorrow, yet to challenge the status quo. At the same time, college is about self-discovery — like a paint-by-numbers portrait, slowly uncovering the things that ignite our spirits. Our biggest challenge then relies on our ability to blend these two worlds — understanding how to make the biggest difference by staying true to ourselves.
A destructive career advice
While checking my LinkedIn feed today, I stumbled upon a piece of career advice — liked and shared in the thousands — that left me feeling unnerving. It began: “Would you like to make $350,000 per year or more? There’s a secret world of insane salaries like this being paid out at top tech companies in the US across many product management and engineering roles. (…) If you want to play the game then you need a plan.” The post continued to list steps students can take to land these ‘dream’ jobs. Those included doing a salary scan and identifying top-earning job titles, finding people on LinkedIn with those titles, analyzing their resumes (including what universities they attended), and then — the most concerning — “creating a plan to systematically check all the same boxes that these individuals did.” The post ended with an afterthought instructing students to believe in themselves.
While preparing to apply for their first job, new graduates are often also navigating internal paradoxes with no easy fixes; dealing with feelings of insecurity, impostor syndrome, and uncertainty; choosing between self-actualization and real-life realities like paying student debt or moving to cities they can’t afford; questioning hard life decisions; rationalizing, ranking and grappling with the gravity of those decisions and their consequences; and resisting herd mentality, while finding themselves at its very centre.
I’m not a recent graduate, but I felt anxious just by reading this step-by-step directive. I can’t begin to imagine what someone entering the job market might feel. While preparing to apply for their first role, new graduates are often also navigating internal paradoxes with no easy fixes; dealing with feelings of insecurity, impostor syndrome, and uncertainty; choosing between self-actualization and real-life realities like paying student debt or moving to cities they can’t afford; questioning hard life decisions; rationalizing, ranking and grappling with the gravity of those decisions and their consequences; and resisting herd mentality, while finding themselves at its very centre. Above all, they are trying not to lose themselves in the process. Psychologists coined a term called ‘post-graduation depression,’ which encompasses many of these inner conflicts.
How are we supposed to help new graduates find their path — while staying true to themselves within rigid systems that seem nothing short of contradictory to any self-actualization ideal — when the advice we give is rooted in ‘formulas’ for success, checklists, and following the status quo? How are we inspiring people to solve the pressing issues of our world, when we tell them to follow the pathways of those who may find themselves burdened with those very issues? Why are we telling students they may not be good enough, yet we encourage them to believe in themselves?
Promoting homogenous images of success can only lead to feelings of inadequacy, a loss of self-worth and activated impostor syndrome in a population that is already battling these very issues.
While I appreciate a systematic approach to achieving goals, and I would even argue that being inspired by others’ stories — and seeking mentorship, for example — can be productive, I struggle to understand how moulding anyone into a formulaic persona could be beneficial for their mental health. What this formula may be successful in achieving, besides that 6-figure income, is a proven way to burnout, stress and unhappiness. Promoting homogenous images of success can only lead to feelings of inadequacy, a loss of self-worth and activated impostor syndrome in a population that is already battling these very issues.
Financial Rewards and Social Comparison
Studies show intrinsic rewards (for example, believing your work achieves a higher purpose, having control over how you conduct your work, or feeling competent and valued) have a higher impact on your satisfaction beyond extrinsic rewards — your compensation. Of course, you need to feel that the pay is fair for the work you’re doing, but chasing financial peaks might not lead to happiness. Studies even toyed with an idea that there is a point of ‘diminishing returns’ at a certain income level, where an increase in financial gain doesn’t lead to more happiness. In some instances, higher compensation can lead to more dissatisfaction. And what happens when you suddenly hold a high-earning position? Some psychologists even suggest that those individuals can find themselves at conflict about their felt identity (or how they see themselves).
Social comparison in either direction leads to higher rates of depression.
With social media embedded in all aspects of our life, including in our professional sphere, it is easy to see how post-graduation depression manifests itself even more today. What was once mostly about the loss of a social group or routine, now gets compounded with new stressors related to beliefs about perceived success in others. Seeing our peers achieve career success or a laundry list of accomplishments can make us feel more anxious and unsatisfied. Researchers at the University of Houston uncovered a significant finding: regardless if we compare ourselves positively (‘I am faring much better’) or negatively (‘I am faring much worse’), both tendencies lead to higher rates of depression. In a preliminary research, psychologists identified a correlation between LinkedIn usage specially and increased feelings of depression and anxiety.
Instead of equating success to how much an individual makes, we need to promote the real human stories of hardship, perseverance and ambition.
While I believe our digital world can be used for productive results — for example, in fostering a sense of community that is both challenging and supportive — we need to promote ideals rooted in one’s values, aspirations and vision for the world, not those reduced to status symbols. Instead of instructing students to follow formulaic approaches of copying other’s resumes in the hopes of landing a job, we need to instruct them to join supportive networks and identify role models. Instead of equating success to how much an individual makes, we need to promote the real human stories of hardship, perseverance and ambition. We need to encourage our graduates to keep tapping into their ambitious and daring energies fuelled by a desire to make the world better. Most importantly, we need to tell them that they are enough.
We won’t solve the world’s challenges by asking people to assimilate. We can only tackle a complex, uncertain, and at times scary world, only by encouraging our young leaders to find value in the things that matter — the strength of their character, their humility, and their ambitions.
We need to stop paving the way, but to encourage new graduates to pave their own, and in the process, un-pave, re-pave, and forge new paths. And we can start by getting out of their way.