Be Smart About Higher Education: Why Are You Going Nowhere, Anywhere, Or Somewhere?

Where are you going in life and in the pursuit of higher education and why? Twentieth century writer Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Life is great as it moves along with good things happening, but what happens when (not if) the tragedies come along? What is it that enables some people to get through tough circumstances while others breakdown?

The answers to the last two questions revolve around two different aspects of the word why. Mark Twain used why in the context of a person’s existence. Seeking why we were born is smart because it opens all kinds of purposeful engagement in life that directly or indirectly involves benefitting others.

In contrast, repeatedly asking why an unexplainable tragedy occurs, a person emotionally ends up going nowhere. The brain tries to answer all the questions asked of it. Asking the brain to answer the unanswerable is comparable to a computer crashing. When given a problem that the computer has insufficient capacity to handle, it goes into what’s known as a freeze. Sustained freezing of the brain is not smart.

When a computer crashes, all that’s necessary is to reboot. Restoration of the human psyche is not that simple. Asking why to unsolvable questions has some PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) characteristics at one end of a spectrum of psychological conditions. Sudden or prolonged seemingly unresolvable trauma coupled with unanswerable questions can bring about serious emotional issues like PTSD.

Another outcome with those same traumatic experiences is the less publicized PTG (post-traumatic growth) that has the opposite effect. Instead of the traumatic experience resulting in a disorder, the person has an emotional fortification that serves to help in future challenges. Whether one develops PTSD or PTG is not a judgment of character since everyone has a breaking point, but a person can develop skills and focus on an attitude that hinders PTSD and promotes PTG.

Nietzsche stated, “He who has a why to live can deal with almost any how.” Viktor Frankl observed this concept personally in Nazi prison camps where people underwent horrific conditions. Many died, no one thrived, but a number survived by focusing on a desirable somewhere which in most cases was home. Viktor observed, “Those who cannot see an ultimate goal in life for existence, end up not having a life.”

Having a meaningful why in the pursuit of higher education is smart. Students knowing why they exist can answer the question why not just going anywhere to school is important. Knowing why higher education is advantageous leads to a more enriched experience because it makes sense. The perspective for the seemingly most boring marketing course for an engineering major can change. When the engineering major understands that marketable features included in the designing of a product radically improve sales, the course becomes relevant.

Knowing why a particular university and major are chosen enables the student to work through the most difficult challenges of academia and the accompanying circumstances – homesickness, peer pressure, and character building. When encountering any challenge, knowing why enables a person to generate the creativity necessary to figure out how. In contrast, without a clear vision and purpose, students can feel like Sisyphus, the Greek character who continuously rolled a stone up the same hill only for it to roll back down to the same place to do all over again.

College or any form of higher education does not last forever, but can be prolonged literally and figuratively due to lack of purpose and knowing why it is more than just getting a job. The majority of students are taking an average of six years to complete four-year degree programs. Others that finish within the four year window crawl to the finish line only to get a job totally unrelated to a major that cost many thousands of dollars.

The frustration of Sisyphus going nowhere does not need to prevail for those in academia. Mark Twain’s reference to that most important day of finding out why we’re born is within the grasp of students. The higher education experience can be fun and fulfilling, but it requires being smart about it.

There Are Times When Asking Why is the Wrong Thing to Do

All children hit an age when all they do is ask why.

Why do airplanes fly? Why does it rain? Why do I have to go to bed? Why is green, green?

We live in age when we ask why a lot. Many times it is just to go against established wisdom, or perhaps to justify doing things that in a previous age, just a generation ago, were simply not done. And the why question soon turns into the why not mentality. Why not do whatever I feel like doing.

Then you have science and technology. They say most great discoveries came about because of a mistake, but then if the experiment ha not started off with a “why”, the scientist would never have had the chance to make a mistake.

However there are important, life startling moments when it is a mistake to ask “why”.

Most of us have had experiences when things beyond our control took over and just happened. In the final analysis these occurrences just carried us along. Many accidents that happen to people, or illnesses and tragedies in general fall into this category. For that matter many ‘lucky” moments also happen despite ourselves.

About ten years ago I was involved in a head on crash with a bus. It was around two in the morning, a foggy road and a bus driver that decided to save himself a half mile turn, so he drove the wrong way. the end result was that we crashed while in the middle of a bend in the road. This occurred in Latin America, so it should come as no surprise that the driver and his assistant calmly picked up their stuff, walked out an caught another bus from the same line. I, on the other hand, was stuck in my pickup, with the motor practically in my lap, a broken and bleeding head, a shattered wrist, my right leg near my shoulder as the femur was broken in three places, including where it joins the hip, both knees broken and my left ankle with the bone sticking out.

A few hours later, make that 5 hours later I arrived at the hospital (other wonderfully unbelievable stuff happened during those hours with the police, the passengers who tried to rob me, another accident as a car smashed into the police car that was parked in the middle of the road without any lights – at around 3 a.m.), unconscious, in shock and barely alive. I survived and after quite a few months learned to walk again. Earnings wise things got a bit complicated as I couldn’t work or months afterward.

The point behind this story is that although it is by no means unique, it is the sort of thing that makes you ask “why”. Why me? Why? Why?

There are things that you cannot control and once they happen you cannot undo. To ask why is to get stuck in that story. Why did my friend die? Why did I crash? Why did this or that happen to me, or my family or my friend? Why did I become ill?

These why type of questions may be interesting, but all they do is stop you from continuing with your life. Typically resentment comes along and is fed by these “why” questions and the end result that it does nobody the slightest good.

So, if not “why”, what?

“What for” is the question we should ask. The first thing that happens is that immediately you stop apportioning blame. You also move on – even if you don’t know the answer. You look forward and this means that you start living your life, as you are in the driving seat yet again.

After this accident, when I had literally months to think this over I came to realize part of the what for. And it is quite simply a call to live my life to the best of my ability. Not to go from one day to another, but to embrace it firmly and with passion.

I didn’t fall into depression or anything of the sort during that recovery time or even the times I fell and wondered if I could walk again. I was focusing too much of my mental and physical strength in not giving up and that meant that I didn’t have time to think of other things. That came afterward and with it the realization that I had been given another opportunity.