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.