Anti-advice column: unsolicited suggestions

By: Matthew Worsham, Managing Editor

It seems like, from the day that we’re born, people are always trying to tell us what to do. That will  probably continue until we’re the oldest people in the room, and then after that, we’ll die. And that’s life.

Because of this, by the time we graduate college, most people have been given a lot of advice, whether it’s asked for or not. I’m grateful to the hundreds of very wise people who have given me advice over the years, solicited and unsolicited, good and bad and, quite often, conflicting. If you read until the end, I’ll give you some unsolicited advice of my own. To co-opt the verbiage of my former co-worker Dan Cleveland in his last column for Flyer News, senior advice columns are dumb, so I wrote one.

Often the central struggle for people our age is finding our career/vocation/purpose/dream/thing we’ll do for a few years after we graduate from the safety and security of college life. This is not only when people are most eager to offer you advice but the time when you’re most likely to get inconsistent opinions.

Here’s the problem with this advice: Conventional wisdom is split into two camps. Like Mr. McGuire in 1967’s “The Graduate,” whose only advice could be summed up in his insistent use of the word “plastics,” some people will tell you to accumulate skills and pick a major that will make you marketable for a high-paying job after graduation and useful to society at large. “There’s a great future in plastics,” he tells Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman’s wholly uninterested main character. And Mr. McGuire was right: Had Benjamin followed his advice, he would have had a life of incredible wealth and opportunity, contributing to the greater efforts of humanity regardless of his sincerity. Still, this mentality can sideline one’s personal curiosities.

The other camp would likely be aghast at the suggestion that its wisdom is conventional, but there’s nothing innovative about advising someone to follow their heart. It’s the identity crisis go-to. But again, there’s truth in this saying because wealth and opportunity alone are inadequate ways of finding fulfillment in life. At the same time, pursuing your passions can be personally fulfilling but is not always in line with the larger needs and goals of society.

The all-knowing advice-givers have reached these different conclusions based on their own unique life experiences, and that makes each of them valid. Both paths can be construed altruistically (skills useful to the progress of society versus pursuing the passions that naturally make you happiest) or selfishly (wealth and comfort versus disregard for the greater struggles of humanity). But like so many other things, perhaps the question is not which one is the right path, but whether this black and white reduction is even a useful reflection of our experiences.

Like this advice divides the head and the heart, we divide this time in our lives into two parts: undergraduate and postgraduate. And if we see our postgrad life as something distinct from our experience now, where we must choose the head or the heart, it makes it hard to leave the comfort of college and envision life beyond commencement.

If it even ever was, the neat four-year-undergrad state just isn’t a reflection of college life anymore. Think back on all of the semesters that you or your friends left class for an internship, study abroad, a semester of service or some other adventure. If you didn’t, then there must have been some uneven transitions somewhere else, whether that meant changing majors, starting a new job, joining a new club or finding a leadership opportunity that popped up unexpectedly in the middle of a semester.

College is as messy as the rest of life, and when you see all of the adventures that you’ve been on in between and how you came through them as a better person, it makes the “postgrad world” a lot less scary.

Here’s where I think the head/heart dichotomy breaks down: Our choice in a major and the skills that we develop here are as important as our choices in how we use them. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to participate in a lot of experiential learning during my time in the school of engineering. In four years of mechanical engineering, there were times when I loved my studies and times when I couldn’t stand them. There were also passions that I pursued outside of class, admittedly some of which I was better at than others. It was when I found causes that I cared about that I truly loved engineering, and sometimes I discovered those causes outside of the classroom.

Which brings me to my unsolicited advice: Take unsolicited advice with a grain of salt, as anyone who tries to tell you how to live your life without getting to know you likely can’t help very much at all. The best mentors that I’ve had are those who have spurned the dual prongs of conventional wisdom and understood that reality doesn’t fit neatly into two boxes. Because there is a third type of adviser, who cares less about pushing plastics or harping on the heart and cares more about you, with all of your unique skills and interests, who will help you find the best way to apply what you know to the causes you care about.

I’m grateful to people like professors, upperclassmen and, especially, my parents who pushed me do the things I was passionate about and still work hard on things that I was less interested in but would pay off in the end. Many of the reasons that I love engineering are because of causes that I grew close to through my work with Flyer News, and I believe that the skills I developed in class brought a unique perspective to the passions that I pursued outside of my curriculum.

Maybe you picked “plastics” when you came to college. Maybe you picked the heart. I would argue that you’ll turn out fine either way in the end, so long as you embrace the complexity of life and don’t give up on the other side. That means working hard even in classes that you don’t like or pursuing passions that don’t seem to apply to your major. Looking at the world in black and white won’t help you.

Then again, what do I know?

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