While final year high school students around the world sit their year-end exams, the big question "what's next?" lingers around them.
This pending change, and the unknown, can create concern and negative outcomes for some adolescents, impacting their overall wellbeing.
Supporting the transition into life after school is paramount for completing a positive schooling experience. And providing positive education resources to support students that make this transition has been my sole focus for the past 5 years.
Recently, I took to the TEDx stage to address this question and share my findings to help both school-leavers and their support networks through this big transition. (Video with full transcript below.)
Share the TEDx Talk to talk support this year's graduates.
"My dream, is for all school-leavers to hear this simple message before walking out of the school gates" - Amba Brown, Positive Education Author & Founder - Finding Your Path Books
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“Ever since I can remember, there’s one question I’ve continually been asked. A question I’m sure, all of you here today, have heard dozens of times before.
“What are you going to do after school?”
But I’ve recently concluded that this most frequently asked question to generations of kids – is now one we need to delete – it needs to be moved to the SPAM file.
And today, I’m going to explain why. And then, replace it with an updated idea you can take away - to help find your path.
But first, can you put up your hand if you’ve ever been at the receiving end of this big question? Ok now keep it if when you answered it you weren’t sure you wanted to commit to doing this one thing forever?
That’s what I thought! And research tells us that most of us don’t know what we want to do after school.
And why should we? With no experience yet in the world after school have to commit to doing one thing forever? We shouldn’t.
Let me tell you, there are endless options out there – and we should have the right to grow and learn, explore and yes… change our minds. This question isn’t helpful or inspiring and it does nothing to help you find your path. So instead, the SPAM file is where it needs to be.
And here’s why:
S – It’s STRESSFUL
While globally mental disorders are on the rise, the World Health organisation reports that 1 in 5 youth are effected.
Another study conducted in the US by generational expert, David Stillman, found that 75% of Gen Z, that is the 72 million youth of today, said they were more worried about starting a career than finding a soul mate.
These statistics not only highlight the anxiety of the unknown future – but support the idea that we need a new approach.
And although I just miss the Gen Z cut off - I get it.
It’s stressful. There really is a ridiculous amount of choice out there today. I can feel the anxiety as I talk about it now, although that might be because I’m standing on a TED stage, public speaking, one of my greatest fears.
Either way – I do understand. For me the transition from high school was really tough.
Now when I say tough, I mean I wasn’t just worrying – I was panicking, panicking to the point where I felt like I was actually dying. And this isn’t an exaggeration – in my final year of school I was suffering from generalised anxiety. The repeated question running through in my head "What are you going to do?" had me paralysed.
Sharing this now, I can see that I put an unreasonable amount of pressure on myself, to pick the perfect path - to make the best decision, but how was I too choose?
I remember going to visit the careers counsellor who got me to sit a test that concluded I should be a teacher. Now, I didn’t know what I wanted to be but I knew a few things I definitely didn’t want to be, and a teacher was one of them. No disrespect to teachers, I just knew I wasn’t cut out for it! And then I was sent on my way…
So at that point - this was how I planned life to look:
And here’s what really happened:
I finished school and was anxious and confused.
I decided to take a gap year to buy some time. I worked for 6 months, 7 days a week to save up and then travelled around the world at 18 with my best friend. I was loving life.
Then I decided to go university and did a general degree.
For me university went from having no idea what I wanted to do – to realising I enjoyed my psychology subjects to working out in my final year that I didn’t want to be a psychologist.
So, I started researching other options and found myself working in a bunch of other psychology related jobs.
Then In 2015 I wrote a book on the side about path finding – because I wanted to spread the message that no matter the age we’re all finding our path.
That first transition out of school is just the first of many. Now I felt hopeful that my moments of what felt like I was dying at school might not have all been in vein!
Then I found myself working as an author… It’s taken me 2 years to say that out loud without pulling a face that suggests that I’m not really sure I’m telling you the truth – and those facial expressions, they still sneak in when I think about it now.
So Again – I’m not sure where to next for me! If I were told by that career counsellor all those years ago that I’d be an author at some point after school – I wouldn’t have believed him! I was average at English - plus I struggle to believe it now.
But what I do know is - it’s not just me fumbling up and down on my path – it’s the same for everyone. Here are some names you might recognise.
As you can see life is like a rollercoaster – it has its ups and downs – and it’s your choice to scream or enjoy the ride.
P – It’s PUZZLING
Now to the “P” in SPAM, - puzzling.
When asked this question, “What do you want to do?” it puzzles us.
Firstly, it suggests we know the answer – But In the same study conducted by Stillman – he found that 65% of Gen Z will work in jobs that don’t yet exist. That’s most of you…
Secondly, the puzzling question suggests we’re picking 1 path.
But what about the rest?
Let’s break it down together.
I’ve outlined 4 basic pathways:
Creating your own path
Now, you don’t have to do them all but you can. I’ve tried them out now and I while don’t enjoy telling people what to do, I am the eldest of 6 so it probably comes naturally – but for this matter - I do recommend you try any that interest to you. Then at least you’ll have your own opinion.
Lets face it – watching David Attenborough is not the same as a gap year – and watching The Social Network isn’t quite what it’s like to go to university. Try them for yourself.
So - you know you can do anything – but the downside you can’t do everything.
These 4 basics choices actually turn into:
Over 4000 cities to visit
More than 4000 degree granting universities alone in the world, not to mention the many other forms of study available today.
Millions of jobs to choose from
an infinite amount of own projects you can make up yourself.
No wonder it’s a tough a decision. And now aren’t you glad you don’t just have to pick one?
No one told me this. No one gave me the memo that there’s an infinite amount of choices. No one told me I could be a mattress jumper or a Disney imaginer or a waterslide tester. Which all sound awesome.
Don’t get me wrong - this is a big choice you make when you leave school– but it is the first of many more choices to come. This isn’t a make or break choice. If you pick something and like it – great. If you hate it – it’s time to pick again.
And this doesn’t mean that you chop and change when things get tough. Even our dream jobs have bad days! It simple means you have the right to change when you’ve given it your all and things aren’t working out. You don’t have to get it right the FIRST go!
But an important thing for me to clarify is the problem isn’t the choice. Choice is a privilege. While I give this talk, many people your age don’t have such choices. So it’s important to also be grateful if you do. Don’t wish away your options.
The real problem then lies in the lack of support for students to make this transition and the emphasis we place on picking one path.
A – It’s ANCIENT
Which brings me to my next point. A - the question is ancient – it’s out dated.
The days of employment for life are over.
I wont take you back to the dark ages – but here is a brief overview of how this transition has changed:
While the traditionalists and baby boomers commonly worked their way up the ranks –working in one job for 20 or 40 years. It was Gen X that broke away from this traditional path – With the famous examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs creating their own. So today you know you don’t have to just follow the path of others. This isn’t new information to you - 20 years ago it would have been motivating. Now, the anxiety around the choice can overshadow the inspiration. Today we’re seeing a new trend of an increasingly customised path.
Some universities have begun allowing students to create their own majors, companies starting to allow employees to create their own job titles and even responsibilities and hours. While our paths become more customised - the same question still exists - what will you choose?
In the past the motto was the longer the better – but now it’s the happier the better. The shift is away from the companies and onto the value of the individuals. It’s not about being lazy or entitled – which are words that get thrown around a lot today. It’s about staying true to yourself and making the most of this one life we have.
M – It MISSES THE POINT
Lastly, worst of all - this question misses the point. It doesn’t teach us how to decide.
In contrast, being asked this continually over our lives focuses on the idea of having to make one choice. When there are so many other helpful questions that could be asked
“What do you enjoy doing?” or
“What makes you happy?” or
“What are your strengths?”
But these questions don’t get asked often enough. Instead we keep getting the same old question. And by the time people start asking – well if you can’t answer what do you want to do – then what are you interested in?” You have absolutely no idea because you have spent your whole life focused on trying to pick one career path, one stream – not giving our interests the time of day.
So, you’ve had a lifetime to date of answering this question – and now it’s gone – what next?
For a generation who has grown up on the Internet – this isn’t an answer you can Google. You can try – but in the end you’ll end up with more information, and more questions.
So how do you find a happy path after school?
You tap into your own WIFI.
W – Watch your interests
Focus on what you enjoy doing. Write down 5 things that you do in your spare time or things you think about when your mind wanders. Don’t underestimate these things.
I - Investigate your options
Start by writing down 5 things you’d like to do when you finish school.
When I was younger I said I wanted to be a lawyer, poet and marine biologist because these were the some of the options in my head.
The second part then, is to research and write down 5 new things that you didn’t know existed! With these 5 new options – you can swap out any on your initial list. Do this every month in your final year of school, alongside your interests list and some cool new options will start opening themselves to you.
Although some of you will be confident about your answers and will only need to write one thing on this list. If this is you - I’m not saying you have to come up with more options. But I do urge you to keep open. Stay aware of your interests, even be persistent about them! Understand what you enjoy doing, and if there is a point where you want to make a change or try something on the side – know that you can.
F - Follow Your Dreams
Follow your dreams and dream big. Whatever they are. Never make a decision about your future based on fear, pleasing others or how hard you think it will be to reach your dreams.
There’s a great quote by Earl Nightingale that says “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.”
I - “I’m interested in BLANK and I will see where it leads me.”
Lastly I, If that age old question sneaks in through the spam – Let’s face it, it’ll take a while for all the askers to catch up – then you can answer with this:
“I’m interested in BLANK and I will see where it leads me.”
To finish I’ll leave you with a message that I would share if I could go back in time and speak to the overstressed, and freaking out 17 year old me - I’d tell that lanky, wide eyed-teenager to stop searching for a perfect path and start focusing on her own path instead.
I’d tell her to tap into her unique WIFI, I’d tell her to trust. Trust that if she makes a decision from the information she has based on her interests, her research, her dreams, then that is without a doubt the best decision she can make.
Share this TEDx Talk on how students can "Find a Happy Path After School" and help to support this year's graduates.
"My dream, is for all school-leavers to know this simple message before walking out of the school gates" - Amba Brown, Positive Education Author & Founder - Finding Your Path Books