A Note to College Students—You're Going to Fail (And That's OK)
I realized the other day that I've been asking our young people at church a less than helpful question as I shake their hands in the greeting line after worship.
What are you planning on doing after graduation?
The question, in and of itself, is really harmless. I really do want to know. I'm interested in how young Christians are using their gifts and talents to the glory of God and the good of others. However, lately I've wondered if young people experience the question so often that it only serves to complicate the uncertainty they may already have about the future. Even worse, it may add weight to the already intense pressure to succeed.
As a pastor, here's my concern: During one of the most confusing and complicated transitions in life, high school and college students often experience enormous pressure to perform academically, to have an impressive resume of extra-curricular activities, and to have a clear idea of what career they will pursue. I see this especially here in New England, where in the presence of so many prestigious institutions of higher education, there's often palpable pressure to get into the right school. Of course, social media makes all of this worse—no one shares their epic failures on Instagram, which leaves all of us with the gnawing impression that our lives are always slightly inferior to our peers. All of this funnels down into a sort of secular salvation by works—a performance purgatory heaped on young people by parents, peers, and perhaps even pastors!
With all of this said, let me add that a lot of young people I've met really have achieved some impressive things. Many have sweat hard to secure high SAT scores, and have gotten into schools that are inaccessible to many others. And some even possess a clear sense of confidence about what they will do in the future and how they will get there. However, among all the voices that are either congratulating or questioning, there is one word that's missing.
Our dreams may be big, and the expectations upon us heavy, but reality is not always kind.
What happens when you fail?
What happens when your dream school puts you on a wait list?
What do you do when the money's not there or the grades aren't good enough and you're back to living at home and taking classes at community college?
What do you do when you're a few credits short of your major and you realize, "I don't even like political science very much?"
And what about the reality that after graduation, you might need to work at Target for a few years until you get hired for a job that has something to do with your degree?
I suppose that for some people, reality is always kind, and failure never really stands in the way. Maybe you will glide effortlessly through college and grad school into the job and the life you always wanted. But then again, when we get everything we want in life on our terms, our lives and the lives of those around us may become a living hell.
But for the rest of us—for most of you, who will inevitably live with failure, disappointment, uncertainty, and really inefficient U-turns—how do you cope when dreams meet reality?
Identity, Security, Meaning
Dreams are great things. Success is often a blessing. But very often we pursue these things with a constant eye toward how others will assess our worth on their basis. And, to be honest, we may assess our own worth on our achievements. As theologian Robert Kolb has pointed out, we often find our identity, security, and meaning through our achievements. This all works well when life is working well, but when reality collides with our carefully chosen path toward success, the existential rug is pulled out from underneath us, and we may spiral down into self-doubt, fear, and despondency. In fact, we may even resent those who achieve the success that passed through our fingers.
And even if we do end up with all of our #goals nicely completed, the question still lingers—for what purpose? This is one of the looming questions a secular age has created. Even if we do really well in life, why does it even matter? For what purpose? Once we reach the top, we're never satisfied, and like an addict we have to go after another hit to fill the void that our need for approval creates.
The One Place Your Success Doesn't Count
One of the reasons it's so important to worship weekly during your college years is that church is the only place where your successes don't really matter. What I mean is this: Each time we gather to worship, we begin by admitting, not success, but failure. And not just failure related to test scores, degrees, or careers—failure in relationship to what it means to be a true human being created in the image of God. Maybe these words sound familiar:
We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves...
I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have offended You...
Each week we admit before God that our resumes before him are all less than zero. No matter how much success we enjoy before the world, we all admit failure before God—the only one whose opinion really counts in the end. And rather than receiving rejection—which is exactly what we may receive from colleges or employers when our performance is not sufficient—God gives us grace upon grace.
Consider also the Lord's Supper. When you leave the performance-based environment of your college campus, and enter into the grace-based environment of the church, you inhabit a world in which degrees and accomplishments don't count. One of the scandalous things about the early church was that people of all social and economic classes ate and drank together at the Lord's Table. When a Harvard PhD, a janitor, a college drop-out, a mom and dad with wiggly kids in arm, and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company all kneel side by side at the Lord's Table, none of their individual successes or failures count for anything. Each is equally part of the same body, and receives the same body and blood. This in unique. It's beautiful. It's refreshing.
A Better Reason for Success
At this point, you might be wondering—especially if you are a highly motivated person—what about success? Shouldn't I strive to do great things?! Well, sure. But as a Christian, Jesus Christ has given you a different definition of success, as well as a different motivation for success. The world will always see success through the lens of degrees and dollars. God's definition of success will always be in serving others as Christ has served us. For you, serving others might mean working at Starbucks and completing your degree in five years instead of four at a state college. For others, it may mean doing doctoral research in cancer treatment. Or getting married and having kids. Or going to a trade school and working in a machine shop. What matters more than what you do is how you do it—in service to others rather than service to your own ego.
Finally, as a Christian, God gives you better motives for dreaming and achieving. If we no longer have to obsessively sooth our fragile egos with success, if Jesus Christ is the one who gives to us our ultimate identity, security, and meaning, then we are free. Free to serve others. Free to pursue a vocation to God's glory and the good of others. In fact, this means we are free to fail.
All of these thoughts are better expressed in a little book I just listened to by Tim Keller called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness: The Path to True Christian Joy. It's super short—I listened to the whole thing for free on Hoopla in forty minutes! Check it out!