My baby sister is graduating college in just a few weeks—a fact that makes me teary with pride. I can’t wait to embarrass her—snapping photos and waving and shouting her name from across a crowded room.
But just like it always does, May and graduation season have me reflecting on this time in my own life. What I was thinking as graduation was approaching, and what I would go back and tell myself if I had the chance.
My answer came while I was on the phone with my sister. It came flooding out as I was dispensing advice it turns out she really didn’t need. But when I was graduating I needed this advice, and maybe you do too.
When you were growing up did you ever make sand art? Not the kind you’d sprinkle over a paper, or glue down, or whatever. But the kind where you fill a fun-shaped bottle with colored sand? I loved doing that. We’d always do it on vacations and my room was always full of pink and purple sand-filled unicorns. I’ve always had a knack for decorating.
The key to a good sand unicorn was the funnel. You needed a good funnel—nice and fat at the top, and skinny enough at the bottom to fit into the hole in the unicorn’s head. It’s a science, really.
That funnel is what I picture when I think of graduation.
“Picture that funnel,” I told my sister. “The fat end is graduation, and the thin end is your place in the world. You start out wide — having no idea what you’re doing with your life, and then you go through a long process of figuring it out, growing more and more focused the more you learn.”
The biggest misconception I had, and I think we all have, about graduating from college is that we’re supposed to know what we want to do with our lives.
We look around at everyone else and think they all have it figured out. They’re walking straight out of college and into a job—a great salary in one pocket and the approval of everyone’s parents in the other.
We think that’s where we have to be if we’re going to be successful in life. We think we’re the only ones who feel like we’re pin-balling around the fat end of the funnel, having no idea what we’re doing, and moving straight back into our childhood bedroom as soon as our cap and gown are put away.
But what I would tell my graduating self, and what I want to tell you is that that’s normal, in fact, I’d say its great!
Graduating college isn’t the moment you “arrive.” It’s the moment you begin the journey.
It’s not a time of focus and certainty. It’s a time of trying, and failing, and taking a nanny job to pay the bills, or living at home to save some money. It’s a wild game of trial and error and it feels unmoored and totally opposite to what you thought you should be doing upon college graduation.
But it’s this time of pin-balling around, trying and failing and experimenting that gets you to where you want to go. How are you supposed to know what you’re good at if you don’t try? How are you supposed to know what you’re not good at it if you don’t fail? Majors and jobs and careers sound great in theory, but until you’re at the desk, or in the field, you won’t know if it truly is a good fit. Each attempt, each move, each step forward, and then to the side, and then a few steps back gets you closer to where you want to be. It’s like a dance more than a sprint forward. But the detours end up being the most powerful parts of the journey.
Bottom line: You aren’t doing it wrong if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. Very few people do.
The only way you can mess this up is to do nothing.
The only way you’re truly failing is if you’re not trying anything. Because if you’re not trying anything, you’re not learning. You’re not building your resume, or gaining experience, and you’re not getting better at anything.
The goal isn’t to arrive right away, but the goal is to be walking towards the skinny end of the funnel. The goal is to be trying things, and attempting things, and learning things that help you get closer and closer to the place where your skills and interests meet the needs of the world. But to get there, we usually have to bounce around the fat end for awhile.
So as you’re graduating, my prayer for you is that you’d enjoy it. My prayer is that you’d rest, that you’d take some of the pressure off, and that you’d stop believing the lie that you’re falling behind.
My prayer for you is that you’d try and fail, and try something else. That you’d be an active learner, and seeker of a place where you can contribute in the world, and that you’d be graceful with yourself when a certain path doesn’t pan out like you thought it would. But my biggest prayer is that you keep walking. That you keep trying. That you’d keep trying to find a place where you can fit and make the world a better place. Because it’s such a beautiful thing when you do, and your arrival is made so much better by the journey it took to get you there.
If you’ve already graduated — whether it was last year or 20 years ago — I’d love to hear the advice you have for this year’s grads! Pop your thoughts in the comments below. I can’t wait to hear!