What do you want to be when you grow up?
We’ve all been asked this question by parents, teachers, and friends. In kindergarten, one could give the most extravagant answers such as “A prince”. In elementary school, one starts to be slightly more realistic and would say something like, “I want to be an astronaut”. Pure empiricism slowly takes over while creativity keeps waiting in the background eager to be expressed. Finally one has to try to understand what to study in order to become who one wants to be.
As one scrolls through university websites, one realizes one of two things:
- You have no idea what to study because everything that used to excite you when you were younger no longer does and you haven’t discovered any new passion
- You have a passion, but when you see how many options there actually are you start to reevaluate it. “Maybe this other thing would make me happier”
Or – however unlikely – you might not have gone through this crisis because you were an eighteen-year-old completely certain of what you wanted to do with your life, and found the perfect major that fits your dream.
Where did passion go?
Let’s start with the first category, to which most young people nowadays belong. Developing passion is hard because it’s increasingly uncommon to feel strong emotions.
We’ve transformed a world, characterized by scarcity, into a place dominated by incredible abundance: drugs, food, news, gambling, shopping, gaming, texting, sexting, Facebooking, Instagramming, YouTubing, Tweeting… Nowadays, the increase in the number, variety, and potency of highly gratifying stimuli is staggering.
It was already reported at the beginning of the 1900s the effects of an excess of stimuli: by being constantly engaged one becomes insensitive. Immoderation in pleasures turns one blasé because it constantly stimulates the nerves to react in such a strong way that they, in the end, stop functioning. To whom is blasé everything appears uniform, grey, opaque, unable to arouse any kind of preference.
The “blasé effect” has only gotten worse with time and it’s exactly what one witnesses when talking with young people. Teenagers are bored because nothing can spark their interest. Learning is lame because it’s a form of stimulation that can no longer excite a brain that has been overrun by dopamine-producing stimuli. Something stronger is needed, but nothing is really sufficient. Thus, they just keep trying different things from techno music to new drugs to spending hundreds of hours binge-watching tv series that allows them to evade the boredom of their life and – by mentally participating in the plot of the show – have thrilling experiences. The lack of a drive and the incredible waste of time stemming from all of the attempts to feel something limit exposure to out-of-school activities. Therefore, one does not come in contact with different realities which could reignite their burning childhood curiosity. It’s a vicious track around a precipice. In order to stop running one can either try to calmly discover oneself by taking a breath and reflecting or excitedly run toward the edge.
How strong is your passion?
Everyone constantly makes choices based on previous conditioning – education, environment, etc. – which do not require deep reflection or knowledge of oneself. However, when picking a university major or making any other important decision, one usually realizes that what one thought one knew about oneself is actually just an empty construct.
How can it be that one doesn’t know oneself?
There are techniques for self-inquiry that are impossible to know as a teenager unless one is taught them. However, in most cultural systems – for example, the Italian one – such practices are not part of the common knowledge thus they are mostly unknown to parents unless they have gone through some particular educational course – psychology, pedagogy, etc.
A normal conversation between parent and child is often:
“Have you done anything interesting in school today?”
“How are you?”
Interactions of this kind are symptomatic of the oppression of the roles that one has to play, of the functions, of the aesthetics of distance and coldness that in the customs and tradition of the West are called correctness.
Consequently, one should acquire the tools for self-discovery in school because it is there where one deals with that particular phase of life during which identity is torn between not knowing who one is and the fear of not knowing if one will be able to become what one dreams.
Teenagers no longer have the security that in the past stemmed from learning a craft that then would become one’s future job. To ignore this fact, they search for entertainment because they don’t know how to rejoice. Joy is first of oneself, which means recognized identity, acceptance of reality, overcoming frustration, and the need to escape from the world is minimized.
What does a school do for all of this?
It teaches ministerial programs because it maintains that its job is not to teach manners (the word ‘manners’ is used in its broadest sense in order to indicate good manners, self-acceptance, self-esteem, and most importantly self-awareness) but only to instruct, as they believe that manners necessarily derive from good schooling. However, things don’t really work this way because one can receive good schooling only once one has been taught manners.
In order to help in the development of manners, emotional education should be the main focus of every school because a self-aware person has a solid foundation – one’s clear identity – on which one can build any character one chooses to play in the game of life. It is not sufficient for a teacher to have a degree in order to be qualified as an educator, they should also have a psychology background, communication skills, and charisma.
Another obstacle to self-discovery is the difficulty in getting to know another person deeply because the more one confronts oneself with others the more one learns about one’s identity. What makes it so challenging to be profoundly acquainted, is that while in the pre-technological era it was possible to get to know a person’s identity through his or her actions because these were considered manifestations of the individual’s soul, today actions can no longer be interpreted as expressions of one’s identity, but only as calculated possibilities of an ever more technological world, that not only predicts but even prescribes their execution. In addition, interactions are no longer expected to be deep but instead efficient, and communication goes faster when it is smoothed out – that is, when thresholds, walls, and gaps are removed. To accomplish this, people are stripped of their interiority, which blocks and slows down communication.
The lack of identity that originates from all of the above is the main reason why when faced with the variety of reality – or lists of majors – one cannot steadily face it, and the fall of one’s self-image is followed by a crisis.
What does one go on to study?
Unless you’re part of the extremely lucky passionate students of the third category, then you’re staring in front of those lists of majors like Laika must have looked out of the window of the Sputnik 2 spacecraft. If one doesn’t have certainty over one’s identity, the only way to make a decision is to base it on what would be in line with what is expected of one. Therefore, students mainly try to gain competencies that allow them to be competitive in the job market because it’s what most teenagers are pushed towards: find a job that will allow them to gain money which can be used to buy objects which have been advertised as the only source of happiness. Thus one puts in a constant effort to acquire new skills that can be added to one’s CV or Linkedin. The neoliberal imperative of self-optimization serves only to promote perfect functioning within the system. It is not a concern for the good life that drives self-optimization. Rather, self-optimization follows systemic constraints – from the logic of quantifying success on the market. It’s this self-optimization, that leads to mental collapse and relentless self-exploitation which is slowly annihilating the individual and social souls.
How can one be happy when one doesn’t even know who should feel the happiness?
- Anna Lembke (2021). Dopamine Nation
- Blasé: unimpressed with or indifferent to something because one has experienced or seen it so often before.
- Geoge Simmel (1903). The metropolis and the life of spirit
- Umberto Galimberti (2007). L’ospite inquietante
- Byung-Chul Han (2017). Psycho-politics