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The One Question to Ask Your Teen Before College

Years ago I had some neighbors whose teen son got accepted into Harvard. It was the dad’s alma mater, and I could tell how excited he was that his son would be following in his footsteps. A little over a year later, those same neighbors had some other news, though this time it was delivered less enthusiastically: Their son had ditched the pre-med program at his prestigious East Coast school and had moved back to California to attend college in Santa Barbara. I remember the dad mentioning something about switching to an art major, and I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn’t thrilled about his son no longer following in his Brooks Brothers footsteps.

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I didn’t hear much from those neighbors for awhile, until much later when the mom informed me that their son had eventually dropped out of college altogether. But she had some other exciting news: He became a very successful DJ, had amassed a big following and was now fulfilling his dream by traveling around the world. In other words, Harvard: 0, Following Your Bliss: 1

This story has stuck with me and was especially on my mind last year as we were agonizing over the college process with our daughter. While we were determined to help her follow her dream and pursue a degree in music, pretty much everyone else—well-meaning friends, school counselors, society—was telling us to go a more conventional, proven route; keep music on the back burner, but pursue a degree in something more “practical” at a four-year college. In other words, forget about following your bliss; set your sights on the surefire, sensible ‘Plan B.’

I wish more parents and counselors would try harder to dig deeper and find out what makes a kid tick, what their special talent is and then find ways to nurture that gift.

I thought of our neighbor’s kid and the path he had taken to success. While it may have not been the “success” his parents had envisioned, isn’t it our goal to see our kids happy and content in their lives and making a living at something they love? Before those college applications had gone out and the final decision made, I wondered if they had asked their teen what he really wanted to do with his life, or was his destiny already decided by his parents and college counselors. Something tells me there was a 17-year-old who was already expertly spinning tunes in his bedroom and showed a knack for commanding a crowd.

I think the important question we need to be asking our kids as they set off for college and pursue their careers is this: What is your passion? What job that incorporates this passion is going to make you want to get up in the morning (or at least have that wake-up be as painless as possible) and go to work?

We had to play the answer to this question over and over in our heads as we made our big college decision. Ultimately, we made the very unpopular decision to turn down a few big universities and go for a small music conservatory where our 18-year-old is now studying voice, piano, guitar and performance during the day, busks in the neighborhood during her breaks and plays gigs at clubs and cafes at night. It’s only six months in, but I think it’s safe to say so far the score is Listen To Everyone Else: 0, Following Your Bliss: 10,000.

I know the advice to only “do what you love” isn’t always practical. If it were, I’d have a long, illustrious career in sitting on the couch and drinking coffee. But I wish more parents and counselors would try harder to dig deeper and find out what makes a kid tick, what their special talent is and then find ways to nurture that gift and help them find a job that somehow incorporates it into making a living. That kid who tricks out bicycles for all the other neighborhood kids just might have a future in industrial design. Or the super-smart teen who’s never happier than when he’s in charge of the turntable at parties? He just might become a successful, world-traveling DJ.

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My daughter wants to be a famous pop star, but in the case she isn’t that 1 percent of musicians who sell out Madison Square Garden, at least we’re 100 percent sure she’ll have a career in music in some shape or form down the road. We know it won’t always be easy, but ultimately she’ll be spending her days doing what she loves and of her choosing. In other words, instead of following in someone else’s footsteps, she’s walking a path that is all her own.

Image via Twenty20/drew_33

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