One of the things I’ve always loved to do is make connections between different things. It’s one of the reasons I thrived in a liberal arts environment; connecting history to literature to philosophy to psychology to science is the whole point of an interdisciplinary education. In the same way that I lit up in college at the parallel revenge cycles in Beowulf and Aeschylus’s Oresteia, I’ve thrilled at the many points of connection in the interviews I’ve been doing for the “When I Was 17” project.
Beyond the consistency in people stories, how many of my subjects didn’t know what they wanted to study when they went to college, yet still found their way to compelling jobs and careers, I was curious to see the consistency in the language people have used to tell their stories. To get a better sense of this, I put together a word cloud of the most frequently used words in the series up to this point. Some of the results were obvious, words like “work” and “company” and “college.” But some of the words surprised me, and gave me a new sense of how people actually find their way to professional satisfaction.
Go – I have to say, the most unexpected word to me was the largest one, “go.” But as I sat with it, I started to really appreciate this as a representation of all the stories in “When I Was 17.” There’s a thrilling sense of agency implied in the word go. It beautifully captures how much your professional and personal path is in your control. And more than that, getting somewhere satisfying is often less about knowing where you’re going, and more about just taking the next step. Just going.
Want – The prominence of the word “want” in people’s interviews really brings to mind how large a role this word plays in my conversations with my students. Almost every conversation I have about summer plans, or next year’s classes, or college essays starts with the question, “What do you want?” What you want to study, how you want to spend your time, and what story you want to use to illustrate who you are are the things colleges care the most about. “What do you want?” is similar to asking what interests you, what excites you, and what are you going to do next. And that is the question colleges are really asking.
Time – This is my favorite word in the word cloud, because time is so much more forgiving than most 17-year-olds believe it is. For every person who knew what they wanted to do right out of the gate, there are so many more who needed more time to figure it out. And most people don’t find their dream job on the first try; they spend time developing their skills and expertise and work their way toward a better a company, a better position, a better fit. Taking your time to experiment, to explore, and sometimes to fail is one of best ways to find a satisfying career.