School and College and Jobs, Oh My!

Honestly, Dorothy had it pretty sweet. Despite landing in an unfamiliar landscape and being super confused, Dorothy had a clear objective and goal: follow the yellow brick road to meet the Wizard of Oz. The road to reach her goal was so defined, only someone without brains – Donald Tr . .

. I mean the scarecrow – could mess it up. If only life could be that simple, follow a stupidly obvious path that tells you exactly where to go – no thinking involved, just pure command following. Alas, humans are cursed with the ability to think, making life so much more complicated than that classic film. Without a clear cut path in life, it would seem like the possibilities would be endless and exciting, yet most people are actually afraid of all these options, because it leaves so much room for failure, and humans fear failure more than spiders, and snakes, and airplanes.

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This causes many people to follow the same narrow roads, because other people in the past have found success and wealth following these certain roads. This singular road concept has been called many things, including the American Dream, because many people see the success and fortunes of one and choose to follow that person’s footsteps in the hopes of emulating that same success. Many teenagers today visualize the road to success starting with high school, then college, then possibly grad school, finally ending with a well-paid job, a fat, red bow and a pat on the back. While wildly simplified, this certain pathway has become pursued successfully by many and encouraged by parents, teachers, and peers. People follow this certain path, because today’s job market is not the same one as your grandparents or even your parents.

According to the Pew Research Center, “workers with at least a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $45,500, well over the medians for people with only some college ($30,000) or a high-school diploma ($28,000).” Without some type of college degree, people are making significantly less money, causing more and more students to apply to colleges. However, as the job market is becoming more competitive for people with college degrees, that means more people are fighting for spots at colleges. According to the U.S. News College Rankings 2016, the top three universities had acceptance rates of 7.

4% (Princeton), 6% (Harvard), and 6.3% (Yale). With so few applicants getting accepted into the top universities in the country, many high school students feel pressure to stand out among the crowd with their academics and extracurriculars. This pressure ends up hurting high schoolers more than helping them.

In an article about teenagers’ mental health, TIME magazine states, “During the school year, [teenagers’] stress has edged beyond that of adults . . . They rank in the bottom quarter among other developed nations on measures of well-being, life-satisfaction, and relationship quality.” Students see this road to success as a contorted ultimatum, thinking that one small misstep in high school, like a bad grade on a test or not having enough extracurriculars, will cause them to fall off the track into unemployment and failure.

With more pressure to succeed, students are also sleeping less. A Stanford Medicine article states, “more than 87 percent of high school students in the United States get far less than the recommended eight to ten hours,” which can lead to “an inability to concentrate, poor grades, drowsy-driving incidents, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide and even suicide attempts.” Major health issues like stress, sleep deprivation, and suicide lead back to students’ obsession with staying on the track to success. Our nation is facing such a contradictory problem here, because we want students to succeed, but not at the detriment of their health. So, how do we tell a generation of teenagers to stop working themselves into health problems, while still encouraging them to work hard? That’s the million dollar question, and really there is no right answer.

Of course, it’s easy to just ignore and dismiss these problems by claiming that the track will encourage teenagers to stop being lazy and help propel them into a good life with a solid, stable job. And since we live in a capitalist society, it’s normal that when there are people who succeed, there are a slew of others who fail – that’s just how the system works. With that same mind-set, people claim that this competition, produces the best of the best. The people who make it down the path are the strongest and smartest, because they got into the best college and make the most money. Of course this argument is valid, but try telling that to Mark Zuckerberg – one of the most famous and wealthiest college drop-outs. Zuckerberg defied the track by leaving Harvard without a degree to pursue his passion: Facebook. He took one look at the standardized track to success and said, “I’ll pass,” and I think he’s doing just fine without that college diploma, and according to TIME magazine, “a 2010 net worth of $4 billion.” While of course everyone cannot be the next Zuckerberg, he demonstrates that taking an off-road from the track, while risky, can lead to great rewards and create innovations that advance society. Up until this point I’ve measured success based on the track; success is based on degrees and jobs and money. According to this definition of success, if everyone in our society just does enough to be “successful,” where is the innovation? If a stable life is the end goal and money is the key, where is the motivation to explore? The track is causing students to ignore creativity and passion for jobs and money. In schools, teenagers are intensely focused with taking the hard AP classes and doing extracurriculars, not because they are passionate about them, but because it looks good on a college resume.

And I’m at fault here too. I’m part of a volunteer organization, not because I like it or am passionate about it, but because it will look good for college. Many high school programs include the tag line “this looks good on a college resume,” trying to entice teenagers not with the actual value the program offers, but the value of it for getting into college. So on top of being stressed about the whole process, students are not finding what they enjoy in life. In the same TIME article about teenagers’ mental health, students claim that “they feel mostly bored and checked out at school.” This apathy with learning is causing students to simply get the A in a class instead of truly learning and exploring the subject matter.

Without inspiring teenagers to pursue what they are passionate about, as a society, we risk losing brilliant minds to lifestyles and jobs that stifle innovation. Anna Quindlen, a famous novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner for journalism, once spoke at a college commencement ceremony and aptly expressed, “if your success is not on your own terms, if it looks good to the world but does not feel good in your heart, it is not success at all. Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Success is subjective and shouldn’t be stereotyped as a single pathway in which one either follows or fails to follow, because, what many are not realizing is that there are other ways, other pathways. Sure, they may be less clear and often more difficult, but they are so worth it.

So along the “Track to Success,” if you glimpse a small, less used, dark pathway, I hope you take it. Also, I’m being metaphorical, don’t actually stray from the path if you’re hiking, that’s extremely dangerous.