Teen flicks would have you believe that the halls of high school are a smorgasbord of identities. You have the macho jocks, the bubblegum cheerleaders; the Mercedes-driving rich kids; the monotone-voiced brains; the leather-jacket rebels; and of course, your variety of geeks: chess, drama, band, choir, glee, computer, science, etc.
But high school is nothing like the movies. The chances are low that you, the glorious singing-and-dancing basketball star, will fall in love with a nerdy brain over a karaoke duet. You also won’t likely sing and dance the pain away through rehearsed numbers when the dueling social cliques try to tear you mismatched lovers apart. And the probability you’ll have a hot 107-year-old vampire as your lab partner, who is creepily obsessed with how you smell? Luckily, pretty slim. That stuff just isn’t healthy.
Yet, teen flicks do get something right. They captured what we all thought while we suffered that that adolescent caste system called high school: those identity categories are about as pointless as Jacob trying to entice Bella with his innate ability to turn into hot-blood wolf every time someone steps on his toes. The shirtless look does help, though.
Now, as you sit all excited in your cap and gown on your graduation day, listening to the empty platitudes of graduation speeches that tell you to “follow your dreams” or “march to the beat of your own drum,” you may start to feel overwhelmed. You were given a social standing the first day of school, right along with your locker combination. High school was the training wheels. Now you’re riding the big, scary bike by yourself.
Who am I, really? What does it all mean? And what the heck am I supposed to be now?
Here’s the bad news: You’re going to be spending most of your life figuring out who you are. This is not something you can achieve in four years of high school or the next four years of college. It’s part of being human, a species burdened with complex and self-aware brains. Besides, life is not a Facebook profile just as much as it is not a teen flick. You are not defined by those embarrassing photos of you as a Smurf at that Halloween party, your status updates about how lame your parents are for imposing an 11p.m. curfew on prom night, or your current relationship with Becky the Cheerleader. Especially if “It’s Complicated.” What does that even mean, anyways?
In his best-selling book, A Man’s Search for Meaning, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote that “the world must not be regarded as a mere expression of one’s self” (source). Instead, it is “the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.” In other words, it’s not so important how you define yourself but rather, it’s how you fill your time on Earth.
Frankl would know. The Jewish psychiatrist developed this school of psychotherapy called “logotherapy”—a type of existential psychological analysis with the goal of finding meaning in the lives of its patients—during his three years as a prisoner at Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. He observed the people alongside him who found the will to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as the people who did not.
In his theory, he posited that there are three ways you can find meaning in your life, thus finding your will to survive: 1) through accomplishments or activities 2) through suffering and 3) through experiencing something, such as a work of art or more importantly, experiencing someone, i.e, love.
Sounds easy-peasy. But how do these apply to your post-high school and collegiate years, when you are to figure out what path to take in life? Do you major in comparative literature or do you pursue something more likely to get a job, like business or computer science? And what about cute Becky the Cheerleader? Do you change your relationship status to “Open” or de-friend her completely?
We’re not suggesting you go crazy. Rather, we’re talking about trying everything and anything interests you. Does the knitting club sound like a roaring good time to you? Perhaps the campus improv group is more your thang, with their fart-themed sketches and Andy Samberg wannabes. Or perhaps you think yourself to be the radical type who joins the NOW campus chapter and get a raised fist tattooed on your left shoulder blade that brings out the hairiness of your pits. Your college campus is your laboratory and you are the mad scientist. Try anything once, even that slimy brown gunk the dining commons has the gall to call chocolate pudding. You may even like it. Or, you may hate it enough to learn how to make your own pudding and spark an interest in cooking, thus starting your culinary career as a gourmet chef known for the world’s best best chocolate pudding, leading to your own show and franchise on Food Network. Paula Deen wishes she could make chocolate pudding as awesome as your hypothetical pudding.
Such interests come from trying, and skills are obtained from pursuing interests.
In the grown-up real world, we call them “transferable skills.” If you love underwater basket weaving, climb that club’s meticulously woven ladder and become its president. Organize mass underwater sessions in the campus pool, embark on a new PR campaign that recasts underwater basket weaving as the next big hipster trend, or rally fellow weavers in a campaign to make underwater basket weaving a legitimate major on campus (good luck with that last one). Build those skills, because the times, they are a-changin.’ You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone (source: Bob Dylan). You are entering a time in the world when a college education based solely on lectures is the fast lane to the unemployment line upon graduation. Classes-smhasses. Even your mad leadership skills as president of the underwater basket weaving club are not enough to land you that job as an office assistant. Fill out your time and your resume with things internships, jobs, and volunteer experience in areas that interest you. Like Frankl said, you can discover meaning in life with the activities you choose to occupy your time. Be a resume-builder with a purpose.
No, no, no—the other F-word: Failure. It’s not as fun to say, but it’s also not as bad as you’ve been lead to believe. Perhaps your A-paper on why NAFTA was the single greatest piece of policy in the last 50 years was really a D-paper. Or, your application to that career-making internship at the State Department was rejected because spell-check and Microsoft Word conspire against you to prey on your inability to spell “possess” correctly. And just maybe, that hot girl at the house party gave you a fake phone number because your idea of “game” is talking about why the Lord of The Rings trilogy is vastly superior to that spectacled dork Harry Potter, especially when she is clearly in Gryffindor and has the scarlet-and-gold scarf to prove it. However big or small your missteps are, remember they are still steps. In her commencement speech to Harvard’s 2008 graduating class, author J.K. Rowling recalled a period of failure in her life when she was divorced, broke. and jobless—with a kid. “Rock bottom became the solid foundation from which I rebuilt my life,” she said (source). “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” Soon after, the Harry Potter series was picked up by a publisher and became a reality for most kids (and some adults) who wait for their Hogwarts letters by owl. Take that, LOTR. Harry Potter—once again—kicks your Hobbit hiney.
Becky The Cheerleader
Becky may not be the one you are going to settle down with, buy a house and chocolate labrador with, or even have the average 1.86 children with. Heck, Becky’s not even a real person. But Becky the Cheerleader stands for the third method—a la Viktor Frankl—to find meaning in your post-high school life: experiencing something and/or someone of value. That’s how Frankl puts it. We put it like this: the relationships you keep—whether with humans or if you’re a hardcore misanthrope, with art or books—makes your time on this planet a little more meaningful than if you were sitting by yourself, on a rock, with no one to talk to or nothing to look at. Frankl argues that love, either platonic or romantic, gives our lives meaning because we see the traits of people we dig, thus making us aware of what we can be and what we should be. Sounds pretty hippy, but if you ever felt refreshed after chatting with your BFF over lattes or felt as if you knew about life after reading The Catcher In The Rye, then you know. Even Holden had his little sis, who helped him realize it isn’t so scary to lose your childish innocence and grow up to be an adult. Of course, he ended up in a mental institution, but that says more about society than it does him. The lesson is that people and art help us see this. Becky the Cheerleader may turn out to be a complete phony, but she may help you realize that you are not. That realization itself is meaningful.