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It’s that time of year when many new and soon-to-be graduates come to dread a certain question.

“Every person you meet will ask you what are you doing, what are your next steps, what are your plans for right after,” said Leigh Johnston, 22, a newly minted Smith College graduate. It’s the “older generation” who queries, she added. Her peers, not so much. They know it’s a touchy subject.

Earning a degree, college students tell me, is no longer enough. Now, you need a starter life to go with it, before you’ve even moved the tassel on your graduation cap. “That’s what is regarded as success,” Johnston told me. “Knowing exactly the next step right away.”

As a culture, we confer respect to those who have plans.  To have a plan is to have intention, purpose, vision. People with plans appear to be going places.

Meanwhile, look up the antonym for plan and what do you get? “Disorganization.”

That hardly seems fair. Shouldn’t a new graduate get the chance to reflect and breathe? Doesn’t an unsullied horizon allow for serendipity and wonder? Yet most young adults have been trained, from their earliest years, for a highly structured life of next: elementary to middle to high school, then college. SAT to college applications. Junior varsity to varsity. Internship to job. These guardrails may be restrictive, but they are also safe: With goals predefined, the anxiety of uncertainty is stripped away.

Over time, young adults may develop stellar résumés but get little opportunity to live with the discomfort of not knowing what’s next. Their muscle to manage it is all but atrophied. When the path disappears after “Pomp and Circumstance” is played, and they are left to make their own way, many remind me of the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote: skidding off the cliff, hanging sheepishly in the air, suspended for that split second before plummeting to the ground.

How did we get here? Just under a decade ago, elementary schools began introducing “recess coaches” for students who became either listless or unruly without structure during their free playtime. Over the last 30 years, more and more children have been driven to and from school, instead of allowed to walk independently. A childhood spent increasingly inside, under supervision and on screens has turned freestyle, outdoor play from a natural aptitude to a skill we need to teach our children.

First-year college students now spend the fewest hours socializing freely – without a plan – than any generation that came before it. Many say they feel guilty when they have free time. The “I plan, therefore I am” mindset is the by-product of a culture in which busyness is a proxy for self-worth. And a culture that worships at the altar of plans will produce children that find intermissions, lulls, or even 10-week summer breaks just short of intolerable.

Anxiety about not having a plan almost always masks a deeper fear: what to do when there is nothing to do. Without an overscheduled Google Calendar, there is vertigo. An obsession with structure over substance will lead some young adults to fill in the blank with something, anything, so they can check the box of yet another accomplishment.

“It makes you fake what you think sounds like success, but isn’t something that I care about,” Carter, a new college graduate, told me. Talking to older adults about his plans, he confided, “I’m saying things that are not even true.”

So how can you support a young adult in transition? Instead of asking what’s next, try questions like: What is something that excites you about life after graduation that you’re interested in pursuing? You might get to hear a story about wanting to bike cross country or read a novel – true passion pursuits, instead of faked ones.

Some young adults use plans to avoid the hard feelings that come with an ending. Instead of taking time to grieve the close of a meaningful high school or college experience, their attention is trained on the next goalpost.

Remind the young adult you care about that plans cannot – and should not – immunize us from the raw feelings that come with scary change. It’s okay and normal to feel a confusing mishmash of emotions: fear, insecurity, jealousy, sadness, and anxiety, among others. Feelings are not the bug of a transition; they are the feature.

Johnston still feels anxious, even though she is heading to Taiwan for a Fulbright in August. The move deviated from her original plan and is following 10 weeks off, so Leigh felt unmoored, and squirmed through the first unpredictable week after graduation, then caved and made a list of goals. “The chance to process everything is scaring me,” she told me. “I have gone 21 years nonstop, homework until midnight, meetings all day, I have not really had time to process things and think. The time to reflect is not something I’m really used to.” On her list: Read 10 books. Get a summer job. Exercise every day. Go fishing and catch a fish. Explore Buddhism and practice compassion.


Leigh Johnston, catching a fish. (Courtesy of Leigh Johnston)

Joseph Campbell, the writer and Sarah Lawrence professor famously known for urging readers to “follow your bliss,” wrote, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”

Young adults who learn to live with uncertainty gain lasting wisdom: namely, that we are in control of less than we think, that everything is always changing, and that we have much to be grateful for in the present moment.

For a generation as anxious, lonely and depressed as this one, this may be a skill worth acquiring.

Rachel Simmons is the Leadership Development Specialist at Smith College and the author of  Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards to Live Healthy, Happy, Fulfilling Lives. Follow her on twitter @racheljsimmons

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