I feel bad for graduates. It’s that time of year: caps, gowns, diplomas, and those troubling questions:
“Where are you headed?”
“Do you have a plan?”
The questions themselves are not bad and the people who ask them are generally well intentioned. Yet one of the great lies that haunts our culture is the notion that we are supposed to have a clearly articulable and reasonably specific plan for our futures.
If we don’t, something is wrong with us.
Our culture celebrates certainty and laments ambiguity.
College students quickly learn that it is better to “declare” a major and “proclaim” allegiance to a profession than to “admit” at the ripe old age of 18 or 22 that they do not have a fully formed strategic plan for their lives.
This pattern doesn’t end at commencement.
Most young people never imagine their middle age with uncertainty or their old age with options. I hear the awkward angst and uncomfortable guilt surrounding uncertainty from mid-career professionals seeking more meaningful work, parents pondering an empty nest, and those wondering how to spend their retirement years.
Most recently my lovely wife and I were pondering these same questions.
Where we would live, what schools should our kids attend, and how do we juggle the persistent struggles and joys attendant with the work we love. She said, “I thought by now we would be more settled.” I answered honestly, “Me too.”
Together we were wondering, “What is next?”
I think the Scriptures call us “wanderers” and “sojourners” for a reason. Even the most contented among us are regularly confronted with unexpected changes throughout our lives.
The notion that our futures should be neatly ordered can create frustration and insecurity when we inevitably return to the intersection of decision.
How many of us could have accurately predicted ten years ago where we would be today, who we would be with, and what tasks would fill our schedules?
My forecast ten years ago would have been wrong in so many ways: the number of children I have, who employs me, the continent I live on, or the existence of smart phones.
These changes were not even on my radar screen.
Ten years ago many of my friends were not thinking about the joys of marriage, adoption, college visits, or long-term care insurance. Nor were they thinking about the challenging effects of divorce, recovery, bankruptcy, or cancer.
I am not suggesting that we should dismiss the goal setting exercise of asking, “Where do I want to be in ten years?” The opposite is true.
We need to think creatively about how the future can unfold. And we need to free ourselves from the unrealistic expectation of fraudulent certainty. Circumstances will change, new decisions points will appear, and there will be times in our lives when the next step is unclear. Understanding this tension is critical.
It is the difference between you possessing a plan and a plan possessing you.
The truth is that we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Just think how bizarre it is when someone speaks as if they have everything figured out.
No one wants to be around the guy who boldly announces his buttoned-down plan: complete with the details of his career track, relationships, and retirement.
People who speak with too much confidence about their future plans seem out of step with reality and are quickly discounted as naive, arrogant, or unseasoned. If we want certainty, we can buy a pre-paid burial plot; otherwise, let’s enjoy life’s dynamic ride.
Sometimes, not knowing what is next is normal and beneficial.
The inconsistent intervals of choice provide the rhythm and suspense of life.
Honestly, I do not know where we will live in a few years. I do not know for sure how my vocation will express itself through my work or where my kids will be educated. What I know is that my bride and I are committed to discovering those answers together.
If you have a clear vision of your future, enjoy this season.
It will not likely last.
For the graduates (and the uncertain majority of people) whose future paths are dimly lit, take encouragement that figuring it out is often a refining process. It is both normal and acceptable not to always know what is next.
An uncertain path is not an excuse for inaction, but a motivation to keep us questioning, thinking, learning, and growing.
It also requires a healthy dose of humility because we are not in control.
Pick some great people to join you on the ups and downs of life’s journey. With principled goals and intentional hard work, forge ahead on your evolving path. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”