Q.You once wrote about high school seniors who were going to college, but about half of all high school graduates don't go to college the following fall--or ever. What advice do you have for those of us who postpone our studies or who have no college plans at all?
A. Probably the most thing you can do--and the hardest--is to keep your chin up.
This isn't easy to do in a society that has put such an overly high premium on a college education -- as if everyone who goes to college is smart and capable, and everyone who doesn't is not.
That, of course, is silly.
College -- like a hitch in the service -- gives students the time and place to learn responsibility without having to be completely responsible, and the chance to make new bonds, so they can separate from their families more easily. It also buys them four years of good times, so they don't feel rushed to make early decisions about marriage and parenthood, and perhaps make lifelong mistakes. And for many, that's about all it does.
A college education doesn't guarantee knowledge or training or success -- nor does the lack of it block interesting careers. The people who get ahead, whether they go to college, join the service or go straight to work, all have the same qualities -- and so can you. They have a positive attitude.
To do your best, look for the job that suits you, not necessarily because it pays the most, and certainly not because it will look good on your re'sume', but because it's the most interesting, challenging job you can find.
When you go on a job interview, tell the prospective boss why you think he needs your skills, and not what kind of work you want to do or which benefits you want. He really doesn't care.
And when you're hired, consider that your job is important -- if not to you, to your boss. You have to do the best, most creative work you can, as a matter of honor.
Honor makes other demands.
It's what makes you get to work on time; stay overtime when necessary; take sick leave only when you're really sick and leave the WATS line for business (every call costs).
You also have to be willing. Remember that it's the tedious routine, as well as the big decisions, that makes a company successful. That's why a good boss will photocopy the important papers, if that's the only way to get them done quickly. It's a valuable lesson to learn. When you're at work, the job takes precedence.
While your salary will be a critical factor, the experience you'll get may pay bigger dividends. Any job, even a bad one, helps you define yourself better, so you come a little closer to finding out what you want. And any work, well done, teaches something -- if only how to get along with a cranky coworker.
When there's nothing left to learn, and nothing more to interest you, it's either time for a promotion or a new job. Only the need to support yourself or your family should keep you in the wrong job, and then only until you can switch.
Pride in yourself goes hand in hand with pride in your work. And neither needs a college degree. College does, however, have real value -- often more when it's been postponed.
Many of us come from such restricted backgrounds we don't know that some careers even exist, or if we do, that we have the right to pursue them. College can open doors and minds as well. It would be a good investment if you can swing it later, especially if you get interested in a particular career.
While college is essential for anyone who needs to be certified -- like doctors or teachers -- the talented also can learn the tricks of their trades. Artists, actors and musicians who have had at least some specialized training will probably advance faster when they start working.
You may want to get your degree by going to college part time, or take an occasional course to satisfy your lust to learn. You can study any subjects outside of school, of course, but most of us profit by the discipline of regular classes and the friction of other minds. Knowledge is also absorbed better when we encounter it again and again in increasingly complicated ways and this can get tedious if we try to do it independently.
What students get outside of class is often more important than the classes themselves: the realization that they can think like adults. Fortunately, you can make the same discovery without ever stepping on campus, but you may not make it quite so soon without that positive attitude.
The worst mistake you could make would be to give up your goals and your dreams, as if college were a magic carpet. You may have to do some extra weaving, but you have the threads at your own command.