College Commencement Speech: What They Don’t Tell You

By the time young people hear an inspiring college commencement speech it’s too late—they are already pretty far down the wrong road. The critical decision on what to major in has set them on a course with long-term consequences that won’t be apparent until long after they’ve graduated.

A career choice is immensely difficult; it’s one of the biggest, most costly decisions in our lives. Most of us screw it up and waste a lot of time and money. The problem is, we are expected to make this hefty decision before we’re ready, and we’re usually too young to know how important it is to get it right the first time.

A big reason for this problem has to do with how our minds make decisions, especially when we’re young adults.

Decision making is an interplay between our emotional brain and the prefrontal cortex. Our emotional brain is stealthy, it doesn’t announce its intentions and it largely operates on autopilot.  It’s practically running the show without us realizing it.  Its main job is to constantly send out signals—feelings—about what we like and dislike to the prefrontal cortex.

The job of the prefrontal cortex is to monitor our emotions and understand what they are telling us. This is how we—think—about which of our feelings are rational enough to pay attention too.  A good career decision is requires that we use thinking and feeling to sort things out.  This is a lot to expect from young people. Both their feeling and thinking brain systems are ill-prepared for the job, mainly because they are simply too young and the brain is still developing. They don’t know enough about what they like and they aren’t yet rational enough to make much sense of what their emotions are telling them.

When it comes to making good long-term decisions, it’s very important to know what our enduring preferences are. This comes with experience.Our emotional decision circuits are constantly rewiring themselves—this is how we learn. When we experiment with something new, we learn about what our loves and hates.  Our reality map of likes and dislikes is continually being refined and our decisions get better and better. Over time, we develop a “wiser” emotional system, big decisions don’t seem so confusing anymore—we know ourselves. Since most young people haven’t experienced a career that fits their natural talents, there’s not enough life wisdom stored in their brain circuits to accurately inform their decisions.  Imagine getting married without ever going on a date—this is essentially how young people are choosing their careers.

Conventional wisdom tries to address this concern; young people are encouraged to try different subjects in college. However, in reality, this isn’t easy to do.  College tuition is expensive, there’s only so much room to dabble, and changing majors will set back college students up to two years (40% of students take 6 years to graduate), so that’s an additional $75K (on top of $150K already spent) that parents would shell out at a private 4-year college in today’s dollars.

Another problem with waiting to figure out what you’re going to study while in college is that the decision often gets rushed. Students are too overwhelmed to wander off the beaten path, freshman year is busy with all the social experiences colleges promise, and they’ve got to excel at the course work too. Come sophomore year, most students will be thrust into to making a premature choice on a major.  Neuroscience studies have shown that in the face of an enormous, high-pressure decision, the prefrontal cortex is easily overwhelmed and “chokes” up.  So, the best students can do is use their autopilot—their young, wild and horny emotional brain.

College students are at their hormonal peak; their veins are pumping with the emotions that are designed to impress friends and attract potential mates. This is one aspect of the young adult brain that is quite mature—the drive to seek social status and prestige. Big name schools and sexy degrees are the human equivalent of a peacock tail; young people really can’t help but be preoccupied with presenting themselves as intelligent and accomplished.  These feelings come from the more primitive areas of the emotional brain; the part of us that easily sways our decisions to seek immediate pleasure.

For example, a career on Wall Street was red hot over the last decade; there was a direct pipeline of Ivy League grads going into ultra high paying jobs in finance.  In 2007, a survey of Harvard’s graduating class showed that nearly 60% of men and over 40% women went into finance and consulting careers.  After the Wall Street bust these jobs dried up, the graduates were suddenly forced to re-examine their career plans.  They weren’t even aware of what was motivating them to pursue a career on Wall Street.  Harvard President Drew Faust gave the commencement address to the class of 2008, she said that students repeatedly asked her, “Why are so many of us going to Wall Street?”  You can easily guess the usual suspects: money and prestige.

The emotional brain is brilliant at what it does, and it does it without us even noticing. One of its main jobs is to make us feel the urge to seek prestige; there’s not much thinking going on.  Most of us aren’t conscious of being swayed by these sneaky evolutionary hangovers. What young people do feel is a mix of fear and exhilaration. They’re afraid of being left out of all the excitement that comes with these success symbols. Who doesn’t want to be a part the action and be seen as doing the cool, “in” thing?  This carrot on a stick is irresistible, even the best and brightest from Harvard followed the herd right off the cliff.

Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist, says “Evolution is good at getting us to avoid death, desperation and celibacy, but it’s not that good at getting us to feel happy.”  Long-term fulfillment is rarely a part of career decisions; we are wired to seek visible, immediate rewards. The Harvard President, Faust, urged the class of 2008 to try to do what they loved.  She said, “If you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it.  Life is long.”

How can we outsmart this problem?  Our farsighted, thinking brain is more developed after we graduate from college and our emotional brain is much wiser. The optimal time to decide on a field of study would be mid-twenties.  In other words, the best time to start college is when we’re graduating. This probably isn’t going happen anytime soon and we don’t have to change the system wholesale. We can change how we prepare college freshman and sophomores by adding career decision-making skills and self-development into their curriculum. One idea would be to give some form of a “commencement speech” at the beginning of college, then follow up with rigorous career design and research. This is the best time to guide young people to make wise career decisions, and in fact, this is part of what they hope to learn in college. They secretly want help figuring this out, so we just have to make it “cool” to ask for it.

As it stands now, most college graduates cope well with their bad choices for about a decade. Their twenties are filled with fun distractions: perfecting their bodies at the gym, bar hopping, playing the dating game and getting married. There’s always the hope their career will work out later.  But sadly, it usually doesn’t. My career consulting practice is filled with 30 and 40-somethings that made poor career decisions; they are well-paid professionals from the best colleges in the world. But, they aren’t inspired or motivated, their career “success” wasn’t sustainable, it all faded right along with their hormones.  Many say they feel like they woke up from a spell . . . they literally have.

By the time people reach mid-career, nearly 80% are in a career that isn’t aligned with their talents or sense of purpose.  As adults, they now hear the wisdom in the messages at commencement speeches . . . but wished they could have understood what it all meant before they went to college.