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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 7, 2011

Get off your high horse and on with your next project — your life

By Jo E. Prout

Graduates of 2011, take heart: Life as you know it is changing for the better — sort of. You’ll be out of Mom’s lap, probably, and living the life of an adult. You will be, that is, if you survive college, or trade-school, or an apprenticeship, or the two-month turnover at Starbucks.

At any rate, you’re “outta there.” Woo-hoo! So, now what?

Educate yourselves. Ideally, you should have figured out how to get where you want to go before now, but there’s still plenty of time if you haven’t, so long as Mom isn’t throwing you out tomorrow.

I’ve made a little hobby of asking people what they do and how they’ve managed to be doing it. Sometimes, I ask because I’m a nosy reporter. Sometimes, I ask because my kids are around and I like them to know that they have options.

Last month, I asked the lady at a zoo giving an animal behavior presentation what she studied. Since most of the audience had gotten up and left while she was still finishing her talk, I think she was flattered that I stuck around.

“A bachelor’s degree in zoology from University of New Hampshire,” she said. Her name was Jamie.

Jamie looked at my kids and said, “When I went to SeaWorld, I told my dad to ask the trainers what they studied. I’m not doing marine biology now, but I like what I’m doing. There are three of us from UNH here. Two of us were in the same class.”

There, I told my kids later. A bachelor’s degree. My middle-school-aged son already believes he needs a Ph.D. to write his name, and 50 Advanced Placement credits for the heck of it. I suggested the bachelor’s, and maybe a master’s in business administration, since he’s drawn to management. (For the record, I’m not calling him bossy.)

One of my piano students, Sarah, is a brain and a half, and she’s a workhorse. She took AP physics as a junior. She drives a new-ish Ford F-150 that she purchased with her own money, earned working at her family farm and at a local restaurant.

I asked her where she wants to study, and what she wants to study. She didn’t know and she isn’t sure she can go right away when she graduates. Knowing her as I do, I’m pretty sure she could work to pay her own way while studying at the same time, but that’s a terrible chore when state schools cost $20,000 per year.

In the meantime, she’s stuck in that Advanced Placement physics class, and a few other APs, too. Why? Engineers and doctors need physics. Nurses, administrators, and sidewalk-layers don’t. My student enjoyed her AP history classes for the challenge and the subjects. She didn’t enjoy the physics at all.

I hope that’s a lesson to students clamoring for APs and parents pushing for them. Maybe we don’t need to push. Smart is as smart does, but AP without a reason can be overkill.

A lovely local chemistry professor I know named Miriam put it well: “I can’t lay a sidewalk,” she said at a party. We were chatting over Indian dessert pastries at a party chock-full of chemists.

I was there primarily for (their) entertainment value, being, most likely, the dumbest professional present. I had once asked our host, who has at least one Ph.D. in chemistry (but I believe he has a second; I missed that nugget once and could never socially get it back without seeming a complete dunce), about his research. Even though he spoke flawless and eloquent English, I couldn’t grasp the basic nuances of his work.

“Ouch, ouch, my brain hurts,” I cried. Well, I didn’t, but I’m sure the lopsided, googly-eyed look on my face expressed it for me.

So, here I was, at this party full of vibrant, well-educated people, and Miriam told me all about sidewalk laying.

Workers laying new concrete at the college where she teaches had apologized to her for the delay in putting in a proper walkway. They seemed to be intimidated by her accomplishments and her position.

Miriam, being a tiny grandmother with enormous thinking power, told them, “Nonsense! I can’t lay a sidewalk. I’m glad you can!”

I told you she’s smart. She values everyone’s different abilities.

Another little hobby of mine is reading the want ads. I read them for friends, for myself, for my husband’s retirement in 30 years (“Look, Honey, in 20 years, the young guy they hire for this now will retire and you can apply for it!”), for the fun of seeing how outdated I am or where the job market has swung, and just to see who’s hiring. I read them on Monster.com, craigslist.org, careerbuilder.com and even in the newspapers.

My random study has shown me one thing: if you think you’re qualified, you’re not. If you don’t have a master’s degree in cross-cultural administrative gobbledy-gook, and if you haven’t immersed yourself in it for at least three years, with increasingly-competitive supervisory skills and an ability to make up useless phrases while hobbling perfectly good English (don’t “impact” a company with your skills; what did that company ever do to you?), then you are not going to be the successful candidate.

So, graduates, make sure you get a master’s degree in something no one else would think to study — filing, or paperclip bending, or something. A job opening at my alma mater landed in my inbox last month, and applicants were required to submit an internal communications plan, along with the usual letter, recommendations, blood type, and résumé.

This plan is not the kind you choose for your smart phone for only $20 per month. This plan — and I know this because I hadn’t a clue, either, and I had to Google it — is a very basic, ridiculous chart one uses to explain to a supervisor how you can plot five- and 10-minute conversations around the water cooler. If you include a column explaining that the purpose of a doughnut-hour meeting every Monday helps you disseminate and facilitate information, and another column on how you will coordinate various data input sessions during random restroom breaks, you’ll be golden.

If you, graduates, closely followed that last paragraph and started drooling for more, you might be communications-major material. If you drooled over the sidewalk laying, you might be looking at trade school. If you drooled over the word “pastries,” the possibilities are endless.

Here’s an idea for each of you: Take responsibility for yourself and for whatever needs to be done. Here’s another: Get off your high horse. If you’re not on one, don’t pat yourself on the back for not being on one, or you’ll de-humblify your own humility.  Did you do well in school? Great. Did you score a lot of runs? Nice. Now it’s time to move on to your next project.

What’s the next project? Your life! Being a lawyer, nutritionist, school aid, busboy, cytologist, or floor sweeper is only one aspect of a full, healthy life. You also need a cause, a dog, a spouse, or some other reason to get up in the morning.

Don’t forget to be a good adult child and, when the time comes, a good parent. Educate yourself on these choices, too, so you don’t spin your wheels in physics or on paperclip plans.

On the way to being who you want to be, don’t forget to be yourself.

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