College v. Post-College

by phil on Tuesday May 30, 2006 12:32 PM

Jon Stewart's Commencement Address has been on my mind a lot lately. Lines like this especially resonate:

You knew what you had to do to get to this college and to graduate from it. But the unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective. The paths are infinite and the results uncertain. And it can be maddening to those that go here, especially here, because your strength has always been achievement.
A lot of success depends on discipline, and discipline involves putting aside things that seem concretely appealing now for something that seems appealing in the abstract future. The common technique for making discipline is self-motivation, which inadvertently provides most with an annoying counterpart: this irrational fear of failing. Instead of using positive imagery to concieve a future where they will reap the benefits of their grades, the over-achievers use negative imagery to imagine hypothetical ruination. Even if all the signs indicate that up to this point, they're on track to get an A in the class, the thought of "what-if" keeps them piping even harder near finals week.

In school, the upside of invoking the failure bogey-man is that when all the finals are collected, you usually come out ahead. But post-college, life isn't usually structured into a series of discrete culmination points. While there are many deadlines in work, a lot of them cascade or appear in subsequent series. There is no inter-deadline break just like there are quarter-breaks. If you crammed for a deadline in work, your weak handling of the material will have future consequences, while as in school, a new quarter resets the meter and you can start off on something brand new.

In addition, scaring yourself will make it harder for you to know what you really want. Do you really want a big house, or do you fear the consequences of being one rung down the social ladder? Self-disciplining through fear leads to an artificial desperation.

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