Who do you want to be not what do you want to do

A big part of my job is mentorship. Whether I am mentoring fellow faculty, assisting students, or talking to high school students before they come to university. It is mentorship. I do not tell people looking at higher education that they should come to my program. In fact, I rarely talk about my program with them. I am more interested in talking to people to see if there is some fundamental thing that might make their life a little better. It is not a student’s job to make me look good. It is my job to have a fundamentally positive impact on the future of my students.

In general, a student shows up at my door and we are going to have a conversation. They are thinking “job” and I am thinking “life”. We are pretty far apart and I tell them that up front. It is my job to get them to think about how decisions they made back in junior high school likely affected the path to where they are now. If you were not in the advanced math and hit college with a basic STEM education, it is going to be difficult to graduate with a theoretical mathematics background. The lesson is not that you cannot do it. The lesson is that seemingly small decisions actually have large impacts.

We all make choices and have our reasons for those choices. It is easy to be judgmental of the tattooed, pink hair, gauged earring wearing, hipster with too tight pants. I have to realize that who somebody is today is a touchstone on who somebody will be in the future. It is important to understand that the small decisions of today are the big effects of tomorrow. Now we are having a conversation of who and not what.

I ask my student who they want to be in the future. They usually start out with some job title like network administrator, forensic analyst or chief executive officer. That is a series of titles of what but no whom. I want to be a mom, a dad, a spiritual person, or perhaps a fitness fanatic. Those are still roles and do not describe the person. We are getting closer to the behaviors and elements of a life that defines the “who” in our question.

Behaviors and descriptions of who you have become in a job are harder to explain. I want to constantly be learning, I want to be the leader I know I can be, I want to be able to impact the world around me, and I want to be happy. These conflate the question of whom with emotions, activities and goals. Yet, we are getting closer to being able to help somebody make the decisions about their future.

Students are not expected to know the answer to an unknowable question. There is no way to define a college curriculum around the variability of society and careers. Companies want to define curriculum of universities around constructing the best workers. I want to define curriculum around creating the best people. Since the student is actually paying (the actual split is close to one third, student, federal, state) for the opportunity to learn and companies are literally parasites of higher education. I want the student to get the most flexible, capable, and resilient education possible.

I cannot tell a student much about their future. I can ask them questions. I can point out obvious facts about their world today. If the student has a vision of international travel, intrigue, mystery, daring feats, and gun battles in Moscow, but is a 400 pound out of breath couch potato we have a particular discussion. If the student has a vision of mom, country, apple pie, blade servers, white picket fences, and is maintaining a high grade point average we have another conversation. The choices we have already made restrict the choices that will be possible in the future. Those seemingly small choices are sometimes the most restrictive.

Students struggle with these concepts. Having gone through this many times I am not surprised. It is sometimes easier to have to explain what they would do with their freedom to decide. Would they get rich? Would they donate time to a church or charity? Who would they want to be to be able to do what they want to do? Is their future self a club-hopping extrovert traveling the world?

Who not what is a hard concept to get around, but I like to examine it with my students closely. To get to that point, if the particular student is willing, I will have them write their obituary. This is a nontrivial and controversial idea. Who you are and your life goals are sometimes more humorous than realistic, but the resulting thought process is the actual goal. I do not care about the product so much as the thinking that goes into that written document. I then ask the student if their career versus job aspirations fit into those statements.

I can use explanatory snippets from my own life to try to tie together the threads of a career. I have had a wildly varied career of military, law enforcement, student, electronics technician, network and security engineer, programmer, sales engineer, manager, and academic (partial list). With few exceptions, a thread runs through my life of service and security. The jobs I hated most were the ones that became sales jobs. The inner voice of me (not others) says I am exploiting people if I am selling product to them. This is my inner perception of me and not a criticism of sales. I was very successful selling high technology products but very unhappy in that job. I define part of myself, the who I am, by the ability to serve my community.

The military readers may have already figured out by the statements that I am leading my students down a particular path. By focusing on the cognitively difficult construct of “who I want to be” I am helping them describe a vision, mission, goals construct. The statement of “I am a person of good character and substantial capability who gets the job done.” (awkward but generic) is a vision statement. Getting to a mission of what that looks like then becomes significantly easier. Perhaps the mission is to “Lead technology adaption and adoption in a for profit environment while keeping integrity and values high.” Following up with the actual goals and what they look like then are significantly easier to figure out. The cognitively difficult “who” leads to a better result without any short cuts to “what”.

To be sure, I did not come up with all of this on my own. I adapted a significant number of writers and speakers work into the process.

The original idea came from the problem of students coming to me with a lot of shallow thinking on what they wanted (materially) out of the world. Besides being, boring, it never resolved the selfish question of why I should help them get rich. Getting into university is almost trivial today. Getting what you want out of a university is a lot harder. Getting something worthwhile aligned with your vision of who you will be is almost catastrophically impossible. Unless you choose the right place, time, and way of accomplishing your vision you will miss the mark. The decisions of today will have dramatic effects tomorrow. Constructing a holistic plan will help reduce some of the end risk in what college, job, career makes up a life.

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