Arrive and Thrive: Imagining Three Versions of Your Future Self

“I love commencement for many reasons, but there is one reason that is special. On that day, all students are successful. They may have taken a thousand paths to get to that moment, but they are united by ritual, celebration, and uniform… For those brief hours, everyone – graduates, parents, faculty, friends, family – all agree on a healthy definition of success…They agree that a student who has grown, has challenged herself, appreciates the world’s complexity anew, and is eager to learn more in the years ahead – that is a successful student.”

John Bader, The Dean’s List, p. 14

At this point in the semester, students have already defined – or at least started to define – a definition of success in college that is rooted in their values and purpose. Bader’s quote is a useful jumping off point to help them take the next step: imagining and exploring the many possible paths they can take through college that would allow them to achieve their definition of success as an undergraduate. Once again, this requires a bit of reframing. Most students come to college thinking that there is a “right” path for them, and that the goal of their freshman year to to figure out that path, plan it down to the most specific detail, and then execute it faithful in order to be successful. I can’t tell you how many advising conversations I’ve had over the years with first-year students who showed up to my office in November (or even during orientation) with elaborate, color-coded binders, laying out in precise detail what they will do with every moment of their time over the course of their undergraduate education.

While these four-year plans can be helpful (at the very least they can help students better understand the sequencing of the curriculum), taking them too seriously or literally risks foreclosing on any possibility of discovery, happenstance or inspiration. And students can easily internalize the belief that if they stray from this plan, for whatever the reason, they have fallen short of being a successful student.

Dysfunctional Belief

There is a right way to do college – I need to figure out my plan now and stick to it in order to be successful.

There are many ways to experience and be successful in college, provided I remain true to my values and open to new possibilities

To help them explore these possibilities, I’ve updated my earlier “Imaging Your Future Selves” to focus more on the college experience. Rather than asking students to imagine their life at the age of 30 – at the completion of their Odyssey Years and likely following additional years of formal training – I’m asking them to imagine their life roughly four years down the road at their undergraduate graduation. Who is the person that they have become? What did their journey through college look like? What accomplishments are they most proud of? What are their next steps?

As with the earlier exercise, I then ask them to imagine three versions of this future person: The version of the path that they are pursuing now; a version of themselves that they are contemplating or considering (perhaps if Life #1 doesn’t work out); and, a version of themselves that is truly out of the box and that they would probably never consider (or at least admit to their parents). This was surprisingly hard for my students, who struggled to imagine a path that wasn’t pre-med or didn’t include their participation in varsity athletics. But by pushing them to consider even “wild” possibilities, I’m hoping that they at least see the range of possibilities before them.

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