Choosing Your Own Path

Any parent with a kid about to graduate from high school knows the drill: What will next year bring? College? Trade school? Military? Join the family business? Get a job? Options can create stress in the family, especially if the parents and graduate do not agree. That’s a shame because the truth is, choosing any one of those options is not written in stone; no bridges have to be burned, and a year or two down the road, another path can be chosen.

I once read a Facebook entry posted by a gentleman who described his efforts to build his own company from scratch. Right out of high school he went to work for a landscaping company, and over a period of several years he learned the trade. He was a very achievement-oriented guy, and over several years he not only versed himself in the details of lawn care and design, but also studied the basic financial aspects of managing one’s own company. Eventually, after he had saved enough money, and established good credit, he decided to branch out and begin his own landscaping company. He secured bank financing, hired a couple of workers, and he was off and running.

His story was inspirational to read, a model of individual initiative centered around a solid work ethic. But suddenly, the story took a nasty turn, and became a critique of his high-school guidance counselor, and a diatribe against a college education. Apparently, the counselor had told the young man there was only one way to prepare for running his own business: Go to college. But now he was able to spit in the counselor’s face, noting that he was successful without going to college. His story then drifted into a scathing denunciation of college, talking about indoctrination, liberalism, and presenting misinformation that characterized – in his opinion – a college education, even though he had never experienced the college culture.

As I read through the harangue, variations on a line from Hamlet kept popping into my head: “The writer doth protest too much.” In psychology, when someone tries again and again and again, with great intensity, to convince you of some position – such as, a college education involves brainwashing students into liberal, socialistic ways of thinking – the effort may actually be the speaker trying to convince him/herself of the argument. Or, the effort may be a way of hiding some sort of insecurity or unresolved conflict touched on in the argument. In other words, the writer, even though successful, may feel that others judge him to be inferior because he never went to college; or, the thought of college may trigger long-repressed memories of conflicts with parents over not going to college.

Whatever the case, here’s the coping lesson. When you succeed and feel you have accomplished something through hard work, accept your success with humility. Different folks achieve success by following different paths. Just because someone succeeded by following a different path than you did, that does not mean their path was superior; your path worked for you, and you exerted effort and took advantage of the opportunities along your path. Be content in that knowledge.

If you find yourself defending the way you achieved success, and criticizing the way someone else did, you may have some unresolved issues you need to face. So, pause, accept the validity of multiple ways of achieving, and be accountable for your choice and how you fared. Maintain some humility, realizing that it’s not always about you, and that you still have more goals you can work toward; and work to feel some empathy and understanding for how others succeeded, remembering that you could very well profit from learning about their achievement strategy. As the old adage says, “Live and let live.”

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