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  • Writer's pictureaeraustol

The Secret Self, Boring Questions, and College Prep Google Docs.

Updated: Mar 21

One of the questions adults often ask teenagers or even young children is "What do you want to do when you grow up?" And in the latter years of high school, they might even ask, "Where do you want to go to college or what is your dream college?" I have been one of these adults - reaching for a question to ask when I'm not sure what else to ask or what to talk about – in those awkward moments when you want to be relevant and cool, but you don’t know how and know you aren’t. Even with our own children, we sometimes focus on the big, broad questions, the categorical ones that are kind of boring and don't actually offer much information or room for conversation unless the kid happens to have plans to be the next Jane Goodall or has a whole comedian bit already planned around the question and then you can just sit back with a snack and be entertained.

The question about college and career can also feel somewhat like a pressure to young people, I think. It implies that the young person SHOULD have a job in mind or SHOULD have a certain college right on the tip of their gen z or gen alpha tongue. Now, as always, I am never one to say never.... lol. If your beautiful chicken (Lately, I've been calling my 20-year-old-daughter chicken-little every time she calls me from college. I think she secretly misses me and doesn't mind my new nickname.) has a distinct and ready answer and loves to talk about all things career and college, awesome. I happen to have a kid who has been singularly focused since he was 12, so don't hear me saying it's not good for kids to know what they want or where they want to be, at a young age. But I do think it's important to help young people to think about who they want to be in small everyday ways. To think about their lives/days at all beyond big categorical or open-ended questions. For example, what activities do they secretly think they are good at and want to explore? What part of their day is most fun or least? What problem at their school would they most want to solve? What about at home? When were they proud that day? Did they ever feel sad or happy for another person they encountered? Or angry? Would they rather work on a boat or in an airplane? An office with a view or on the edge of a river? Or a little bit of both? What is their favorite show on Netflix? Do they play video games alone or with friends? Which do they prefer? Do they want a book bed or not? (Frankly, who wouldn't? Just kidding.)

I feel similar about the question: What is your dream person or your dream spouse or who's your type? Again, I have asked these questions. But what I am thinking about more often even in my own life is that this question doesn't imply agency; it’s really about the other person. How about this question instead: What is the dream version of myself and how do I cultivate that person in order to become the person of my dreams. How do I become the person of my dreams for my business, for my children, for my partner, for the community, for the Earth. Not the other way around. And that task or discovery unfolds step by step. Little by little. One moment at a time.

As mentors and parents to these young adults on the brink of whatever is next, maybe getting them to think about their days and think about their everyday moments and preferences and thoughts and feelings will help them mold a vision for themselves without even realizing it. Maybe it will help them get to know themselves and wonder about their place in the world on a micro level first and then to the big picture questions such as: Do I want to work with Chimpanzees or as a Marketing Manager for an eco-friendly cleaning product company? Do I want to live in the middle of a big city or in a town with one main street and a view of the mountains?

Believe it or not, this line of thinking and questioning can help in a practical way with college application prep, both with choosing a college list and in the essay writing. Encourage your young adult to create a google doc folder entitled College Prep and have them create a spread sheet where they can keep a running list of the practicalities like colleges, deadlines, specific goals, things to research, etc. They can also keep a file with more soft and dreamy information that comes out of brainstorming exercises or the daily dinner questions about their likes and dislikes, their ideas about what problems they encounter every day and what they would do about them. As they get further along in the college prep process, usually in the summer or fall, they will add documents for common app personal statement and supplemental essay notes. The information that come out of your conversations or brainstorming activities. (For example, The I love Exercise that I wrote about can be found here.)

And if you’re thinking to yourself, Anne, you are insane and out of touch with reality. I could never get my child to talk about their day. Not in a million years. Plus, I don’t effing have time.  I get it. I really do. I have two boys and a girl, and I know how it can feel at times like pulling teeth to hear any little detail about their day. I remember feeling that pit in my stomach when my mother asked me, How was your day? I would always say, Fine, even it was shitty or awesome. It’s just all so overwhelming. For young people and their parents…For us and them.

But start small. Like anything else, it’s not about perfection, it’s not about having a Nobel Peace prize winning conversation in which you solve all the world’s problems and get to the deepest depth of your child’s heart and longings…It’s just about doing what you each can, given your life and circumstances. Offering ideas and suggestions. Listening and hoping for the best. Trying as much as you can to encourage your adultish child to capture the ideas for later. Also, that’s why I started Water Leaf, to fill in a need in this transitional space, to help bridge the gap between high school and what’s next – creatively and practically. To help loosen the stuck places, get through the fog in this tricky and emotionally charged time.


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