Who Can Teach You About Life?

Last week, I read David Brooks’s column “Mis-Educating the Young”  which opens with his lunch conversation with a former student, Lucy Fleming, a 20 something recent college graduate.  Brooks asks what she has learned in her first year out of college, and she says she has been forced to think differently.

Brooks then goes on to summarize and analyze her story –

“While in school, her thinking was station to station: take that test, apply to that college, aim for a degree. But in young adulthood, there are no more stations. Everything is open seas. Your main problems are not about the assignment right in front of you; they are about the horizon far away. What should you be steering toward? It requires an entirely different set of navigational skills.”

True. We need a different set of navigational skills, but we also need a different set of lens. And there are more stations, even if everything is open seas.

There are goals and milestones we set for ourselves. There are boundaries and parameters we draw for ourselves. And ultimately, what matters is our view of things – a job, a promotion, a rejection, a relationship, parental pressure, peer pressure. The most important lens, is our own. We learn by trial and error, we learn  tradeoffs , we learn to teach ourselves.

Having said that, I am not implying that we don’t take others’ ideas into account. Nor am I saying we don’t care about other people. Far from it. It is precisely because we care and we listen that we need to sift through the noise to find the signal. That means we need to know our own views and values first. If we don’t, we will be floating and following opinions that fit others’ views and values, and we will be living other people’s lives. Do you want that?

I certainly didn’t when I was in my 20s, navigating my life and career in America with a finite amount of time. As an international student from Hong Kong, I was racing against U.S. immigration rules and deadlines to get a job and get a work visa. But then again, how badly did I want to work in America? What did I want to do? Where did I want to live? Those were my first questions. I had discovered through college, various odd jobs and internships what I was good at, what I wasn’t, what made me happy and what didn’t. Once I’d gotten to know my gifts and limits better, I put my mind to idealizing and identifying my dream jobs and dream cities in which to live and work. I received 19 rejections before I finally got my first job interview offer, which kept me waiting for months. I kept my eye on this one job prospect and did my best to prepare for the rounds of interviews to follow.  During this period, I didn’t waste my energy mourning over those 19 rejections, I took them as closed doors. I checked them off my list, and kept my eye on the ball. When I finally received this first job offer, it was not the best in the world but it was the best I could get under the circumstances. I was thrilled. I told my parents I was thrilled. I told myself I was lucky. I worked hard to learn everything about the job, the industry, and explained my thinking to my family in Hong Kong. They were happy that I seemed to have my head screwed on my shoulders. But I was no better than anyone else, I just knew that I was on my own now navigating a brand new world. I needed to be responsible for my own decision and to be accountable to my parents who trusted that I could evaluate options. I was also, frankly, excited! Yes, I am privileged to have parents who trust me. Yes, I do look on the bright side. Yes, I am an optimist. But no, I am not exceptional. I just took one step at a time. I put in many hours alone, praying, meditating and reflecting on the life I’d chosen. I also put in many hours, poring over books for clues, turning to mentors for advice. I was proactive and persistent.






When Brooks argues at the end of his piece that –

I’d say colleges have to do much more to put certain questions on the table, to help students grapple with the coming decade of uncertainty: What does it mean to be an adult today? What are seven or 10 ways people have found purpose in life? How big should I dream or how realistic should I be? What are the criteria we should think about before shacking up? What is the cure for sadness? What do I want and what is truly worth wanting?”

All of these big life questions are certainly ones for which a college can offer career advice and emotional counseling. But there is only so much a college environment can provide. Once we step out to the real world, we must continuously renew our priorities and purpose as we grow and change. What it comes down to is about owning up to your views of your reality and your dream. The inner work of reflection is up to you.



Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.