Nothing of value comes without effort

In a world of pervasive pessimism, cynicism and negativity, young people have a difficult time focusing on the positive. It’s no wonder, college costs of are out of control, finding a position at the end of four years is dubious at best, and the news of the day predicts that their standard of living will be less than that of their parents.

Yet, and in spite of these grim prognostications, optimism is still possible. Perceptions and warnings of pitfalls often get in the way of making dreams come true, but staying focused and taking concrete steps to develop the necessary skill set and knowledge can help lead to success. Learning how to think critically, assess one’s own talents, and having faith in the results is not easy — but then, as has often been stated, nothing of value comes without effort.

College is not always the next right step for everyone. A former student knew college was not for him. This young man struggled in school and always learned more in his out-of-school jobs than behind a classroom desk. He had no desire for extended higher education, but rather, at age 19, became an entrepreneur. Coming from a family in the culinary arts he found a niche in mushrooms. He learned about different types of exotic mushrooms and currently sells them at farmers’ markets. His next step has been to expand his business by making pasta. Like this young man, for those with other talents and abilities, following his footsteps by diving deep into educating about the passion, and staying steady with faith that his business would work, is to have taken good advice.

Majoring in history or the liberal arts is usually considered a no-no, however this is often not the case. Another former student developed strong critical thinking skills and a mastery of a foreign language at Macalester College. Graduating from college during an earlier recession when finding work here was difficult, with the spirit of the intrepid adventurer, this young man found success outside of the United States in the Ukraine where he became a media mogul. His accomplishments were celebrated some years later when he was acknowledged as the sixth highest wage earner to have graduated from the prestigious and competitive Stuyvesant High School in New York City.

Worrying about whether one will find gainful employment after graduating from college is stressing out many high school students and their families. It’s understandable when the projected cost of a private college education reaches over $200,000 at many schools. Is there anything to enhance the possibility of finding a job upon graduation and not simply be faced with a mountain of debt? Other than a hard science or engineering, choosing a major is a gamble. To help my students, and for my own edification, I stay abreast of employment trends and constantly research projections about careers. What I have found is that as fast as some trends arise, they disappear equally rapidly. The constant is that critical thinking and strategic planning skills both go a long way toward finding a career, even when the projections are bleak.

Just a few short years ago teaching and nursing were projected as fields with opportunities for the future. College departments of both were booming, and students clamored for places. Then the news trends began to tell a different story: both fields were experiencing layoffs. In 2010, state and local governments laid off 58,000 teachers and other educational workers. Nurses fared equally poorly, some having worked in the field for close to 40 years before getting a pink slip. If a student is totally convinced that becoming a teacher is the right direction or that nursing is going to be one’s life work, certain steps can be taken from early on to enhance prospects. Especially for these professions, nothing is more important than taking a serious course load in high school and college. A conscientious student can strengthen a portfolio and stand out by getting good grades and being active in the classroom, and by contributing outside school by volunteering in classrooms or at hospitals.

Another field that has changed, and where a degree may lead to under or unemployment is graphic arts. Once cutting edge in technology, many of the techniques are now dated and have been taken over by computer programs. An honest assessment of the field is given by Jonathan Baldwin whose book, “Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice,” was winner of the Best Higher Education Title at the British Book Awards in 2006.” Graphic design, as we know it, is a dead subject. In the language of Monty Python, “It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker!”

Furthermore, Mr. Baldwin states that graphic design has little place in a university setting. Graduates of such programs find themselves being underpaid with jobs at the bottom of the food chain. High school students often dream of a major in graphic design only to find frustration and heavy financial burdens. Of course I would not dissuade someone from following his/her dream. However, not to inform them of the pitfalls would be dishonest. Choosing a major and thinking this will be the “it” direction for a life’s work is naive. I would offer a person interested in graphics the suggestion to look into new trends in computer science. Most likely they have had little experience in high school and by either apprenticing or taking courses can see if more advanced studies in computer science would be the right direction. (

Many law school graduates face an increasing problem of poor prospects and steep fiscal obligations when they leave school. Although it may be years before they need to choose an undergraduate major, when a student thinks the law may be their chosen path, I always propose alternatives to becoming a lawyer and suggest fields that use similar communication and research skills. Many young people describe wanting a major in business, and point to management or marketing as what they are the most comfortable with. It is not easy to dissuade a 17-year-old from thinking they might have to spend quite a few years toiling in cubicles before they will be ready for management positions, or that marketing is a very broad discipline. Suggesting that more opportunities may lie in statistics, logistics, and advanced computer sciences often elicit, a “What?” or “Too hard for me.” Yes, finding and preparing for work is work. In a job-starved world, rather than being fixed on one specific profession, recognizing that many creative alternatives exist and, with a broader skill set of knowing how to research and put concepts together, it is more likely that a range of professional possibilities will be open, leading to an increased likelihood of gainful employment.

Young people and adults in transition need be open-minded and not pigeonholed so that even at times of true uncertainty it is possible to thrive. By continually reassessing one’s gifts and then learning how to practically apply them gives the opportunity to expand our own self-concept of what is possible. The acknowledgement of individual strengths is a powerful tool to open broad vistas and uncharted roads. What we need to incorporate into education today is resilience, the power of the creative vision, and for each student to find a way of expressing and capitalizing on his/her own unique gifts.