Frank Bruni’s Advice to College Students and their Parents: Don’t Think Too Far Ahead!

Dear Commons Community,

In his New York Times column today, Frank Bruni addresses the excesses of college and career planning that has become an obsession with some students and their parents. He uses as an example, one of Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategists, Joel Benenson, who majored in theater at Queens College in New York, dropped out and ran a beer distributorship for much of his twenties, completed college in his thirties and became a journalist, and it wasn’t until he reached his forties that his passion for politics emerged and became his current calling. Benenson is now one of the country’s leading pollsters and political strategists. He played a key role in Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential races and is doing likewise in Clinton’s 2016 run. Bruni also describes the paths of several other major political figures:

“David Axelrod was a journalist for a long time before he became a political operative.

David Plouffe left college, at the University of Delaware, without a diploma, and didn’t get the last credits he needed and actually graduate until two decades later, in his 40s.

Valerie Jarrett was supposed to take the degrees that she got from Stanford (undergraduate) and the University of Michigan (law school) and be a high-powered, highly paid attorney. But she gave that track a try and it didn’t suit her. So she went to work for decidedly less money in government, initially for Harold Washington, who was then was the mayor of Chicago.

Bruni adds:

“There’s only so much in life that you can foretell and plan…the biographies of many accomplished, contented people aren’t formulaic. They’re accidents of a sort, except for this: By taking approaches that weren’t too regimented, these people were able to color outside the lines and surprise themselves. And their learning transcended their formal studies.”

Joel Benenson’s advice for young people:

“Don’t think about what you want to do for the rest of your life,” he said. “Think about what you want to do next.” Maybe, he said, you “have a big goal out there and pursue it, but along the way, that line from A to B is not a continuum. The key will be identifying what you are passionate about in each of those steps along the way.”

He said that parents were too focused on mapping a straight-line journey from cradle to lucrative career.

“Stop making the focus of your kids’ education a job,” he said. “College is about learning how to think critically, learning how to write and communicate your ideas.”



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