May 30, 2009

Whatz Your Problem?

As we head towards graduation, I have been asked to speak in several classes at Stanford to talk with students about life after school. After sharing some stories about my career path, I decided to do an experiment... I asked the students to write down the biggest problems they are currently facing so that together we could try to solve their problems by turning them into opportunities.

Each student instantly pulled out a sheet of paper and started writing. After a few minutes I asked them to pass them to the front of the room. The problems were all anonymous. As I started reading them, I was shocked and amazed by the problems they wrote down. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I expected, but it was certainly not what I received...

Some problems were written in bold letters (I NEED A JOB) and others were written in tiny letters that were nearly impossible to read (I want a boyfriend). They were scrawled as a quickly crafted list with dozens of existential questions or they were written with an unsteady hand (I am not motivated). It was clear that these big, bold questions are looming in these students minds.

After doing this exercise in a few classes, the patterns started to emerge. Clearly, even after receiving an education at a top tier university, a large number of students are struggling to figure out what they want to do with their lives. And, of course, the gloomy economic environment isn't making life easier. They are finding, as generations before them have, that life after college is filled with zillions of questions without a right answer. While in school, students live a life that is cut up into quarters or semesters with a nice long summer break. They are given specific assignments and receive a grade at the end of each one. They know if they have done well or not. But, life beyond college is quite different. It is the ultimate open-book exam. In fact, after school, we are the students AND the teacher, creating the tests ourselves. Nobody gives us a text book or a course reader, and the comforting rhythm of semesters and summer breaks is gone. In fact, a colleague of mine in Chile provocatively tells his students that they should take courses from the worst professors at their school since this will prepare them better for life where they won't have a talented teacher showing them the way.

In the classes this quarter we organized all the questions into categories and spent as much time as needed addressing all the concerns. Students stayed long past the allotted class time to think about these problems in creative ways. One of the benefits of this public discussion was that the students all realized that each of them was facing similar challenges. They are all going out into the unknown and need to learn a brand new set of skills, including how to motivate themselves, how to make decisions with incomplete information, and how to embrace the uncertainty on the path ahead.

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