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How to Overcome the “First Child Going to College” Anxieties

Today, many parents face the “First Child Going to College” anxieties. “Will my child succeed?” parents want to know. “Will my child thrive?” parents ask.

To address these questions, we need to go to the source. And that source is captured by the titanic-sized expectations of college performance heaped onto parents and students by a society utterly obsessed with college as a way-of-life. Today, a universal go-to-college message is widely accepted, even adored. This perspective, which forms the cornerstone of “Conventional Wisdom,” believes that college is good at all times, in all places, and at all costs. This widespread belief assumes that success as an adult begins with college, no matter what.

The ideas of Conventional Wisdom have been taken to frightening heights. Consider the rise of radical “helicopter” or “hover” parents. Former dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims, recounts how a student confessed that her father actually threatened to divorce her mother if the daughter did not major in economics. We are talking about a major, here. Talk about parents’ anxiety gone too far.

What’s more, parents are putting their money where their mouth is. Around 61% of college students receive some form of financial assistance from their families. Regrettably, by extending tens of thousands of dollars (and often more) to their children, parents must function as a banker closely watching their “investment” and demanding repayment upon default.

Regrettably, it’s Conventional Wisdom that generates the pressures parents heap on their children. And parents themselves are worse off for it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s explore three ways parents can overcome these “First Child Going to College” anxieties.

1. Realize that Life Isn’t Linear

In Finding Your Element, Sir Ken Robinson interviewed the director of Liberal Arts Career Services at the University of Texas at Austin, who said, “Most students are encouraged to think that career planning is logical and linear: ‘I majored in political science, so I’ll go to law school’ or ‘I studied history so I’ll be a history teacher.’”

But that’s not how life works. In fact, only 27% of college graduates work in a job related to their major.

Realizing your children don’t have to follow a predictable path for future success allows you to extend them freedom to enjoy life. Not only is that personally fulfilling for your children and liberating for you, it actually produces success for your children. We explore the reasons behind this success in the remainder of this post.

2. Make Room For Self-Awareness and Experimentation

Self-awareness is the understanding of who we are and how we are similar to or different from others. Self-awareness is so powerful that studies show it serves as the strongest predictor of overall success. In other words, neither brains nor brawn can determine your success as accurately as understanding the extent of your brains or brawn (or lack thereof).

So how can you achieve self-awareness? Through “experimentation.” Experimentation is the idea of generating feedback quickly, cheaply, and reliably. There are two ways to approach experimentation: the “Steering Wheel” Feedback Loop and the “Rocket Ship Feedback Loop:”

· The “Steering Wheel” Feedback Loop: Responses that are instantaneous, cheap, and reliable. Consider how the feedback between the driver and steering wheel is so immediate and automatic that we often don’t think about the many turns we take while we drive.

· The “Rocket Ship” Feedback Loop: Responses that are delayed, expensive, and unpredictable. Consider how the feedback from launching a rocket ship first requires millions of dollars to build it, assemble a team, and conduct sophisticated calculations, all before the rocket ship makes it to the launching pad. It’s only after years and millions of dollars invested that you eventually discover if the launch is even successful.

To maximize the likelihood of a successful college career, students must embrace the Steering Wheel Feedback Loop. In doing so, students can easily and quickly correct errors in assumptions they may have made regarding their college careers.

However, using the Rocket Ship Feedback Loop is like the college graduate who spends 4 years in college, graduates, works a year in his desired field, only to discover he hates his job.

Remember: you want to develop self-awareness as cheaply, quickly, and reliably as possible. That’s why you must permit your children to make room in their schedules today to test, explore, and investigate their passions, strengths, and purpose.

3. Realize that Things Take Time

Many parents of college students want to know when experimentation should occur. Is experimentation something students should do in high school? Is it too late to start as a college senior? Is there something in between?

The answer is that your child should begin experimentation now, regardless of where your child is in the college process. The sooner, the better. Here’s why. Kids have time.

When we are young, we are cash-poor, but time-rich. In other words, our wallet might be empty but our weekends are pretty much free. That flips when we are older. After graduation, suddenly students find their wallet is full (at least, sorta) and their weekends are crammed with activities. We might have money to spend but no time to do it. With a jammed schedule, no longer is there time for experimentation and finding a career path that works best for them. At this point, our life is all about accomplishing the things right before us. But experimentation requires flexibility and exploration. Experimentation requires time. And time is never more abundant than while you’re young.

Ultimately, you can overcome the “First Child Going to College” anxieties. Ditch the dogma of Conventional Wisdom and focus on these three realities of how the New Economy works. You child will be better for it, and so will you.


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