My daughter graduated high school last week. It was a well-earned celebration. Honestly, the efforts kids have to make these days in order to gain acceptance into college is totally encompassing and thoroughly exhausting: high-level courses, perfect grades, above-average test scores, community service, extra-curricular activities, and each one needs to show “leadership qualities” and have created a start-up app for ending world hunger. It seems students need to demonstrate that they already are what they aspire to become just to have the opportunity to study and learn. But don’t get me started on that one. Our high school and college graduates are extraordinary in their preparation and achievements, and I’m thrilled, grateful, and proud that my daughter is among them.
The graduation ceremony marks the completion of what’s been a long process in a tightly scheduled, highly structured, somewhat predictable environment of set goals and desired outcomes. The course for completion is known and set. The graduation ceremony, however, also marks a new beginning—which is exciting, but uncertain. The events leading up to graduation day are well planned and known, the day after graduation, not so much.
High school grads may well know the address of the college they’ll attend, but what’ll take place there and whom they’ll meet is still unknown. For college graduates, the unknown is even more uncertain as they enter into some phase or another of self-support, self-care, and adulthood. And for parents, there’s the big unknown called “the empty nest.” Personally, I see the empty nest as an open space full of unexplored opportunities, but like retirement, it’s a huge shift in self-identity, focus, and companionship. How you embrace uncertainty will determine how much you enjoy the arrival of graduation. In any event, the new, uncertain territory graduates and their parents enter will require all the skills ChangeAbility can offer. Navigating change means navigating uncertainty, and life after graduation means finding new supports in new geographies, both physical and emotional.
It’s curious to me that the word “graduate” shares the same root as gradual, from the Latin word, gradus, which means step or a degree of measurement. It’s the gradual step-by-step progression of study and achievement that brings the graduate to their diploma. After graduation, even if a student is in a rush to begin the next chapter, it’s best to continue the gradual approach and proceed incrementally toward her or his desired goals, or towards the discovery of what’s not yet known. The phrases, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and “It takes fifteen years to be an overnight success,” can apply here. Honor the incremental transitions and let them be as elongated as needed or desired in stepping into the future.
The best way to understand incremental movement is by feeling how you breathe. As you experience your breath you will notice that there’s a quiet hovering interval between your inhale and your exhale. You might need to slow down your breath and your awareness in order to notice. If you’re moving too quickly, or your attention is elsewhere you can easily miss feeling the space between the inhale and the exhale of your breath. Moving rapidly from inhale to exhale to inhale to exhale without a pause in between creates a literal hyperventilation which can cause you to feel lightheaded or to pass out from lack of oxygen. In a metaphorical hyperventilation, moving rapidly from one thing to another to another without a pause or interval in between can either deplete your vitality or create anxiety from lack of imagination or support.
The day after graduation, a student might know exactly what he or she wants or needs to do next: start a new job, take a needed vacation, or sleep for a solid week. Or, he or she may be undecided. (There’s refreshing honesty in the statement, “I don’t know.” We should use it more often.) The lack of the certain structure of school can cause some graduates to want to rush into the next something, just for the sake of knowing what to do. But without a “pause in the breath” their next rapid steps could be without air. Instead, proceed incrementally. Take time with your next steps. Relax and play—for goodness sake—it’s summer time. Whether you’re the graduate or the newly liberated parent, without a proper interval, you can’t truly imagine something new from the old place where you are standing. A new perspective is needed, and that requires time to change the scene or to change your point of view.
As both parent and child, alike, step into these new episodes of life’s adventures, it can be surprising the extent to which adjustment rocks back and forth and doesn’t move in a straight line, forward. This is especially true when it comes to separation from home, from past school, or from loved ones and old friends. As a parent, I thought that once my daughter was accepted to college the lengthening of the tether between us—the elongation towards her independence and mine—would begin immediately. But that’s not what’s been happening at all. Instead, my daughter is spending even more time with me—much to my delight. Though the umbilical cord was cut at birth, the energetic umbilical connection between mother and child remains for life. Right now, she needs to come in close to gather sustenance, and there’s still much I want to download to her before she goes.
The first year of college is a huge trial and error transition into independence. The first year out of college, even more so. Uncertainty drives us back for secure ground. Many graduates have a period of anxiety, confusion, even grief after they graduate and before their next adventure comes into focus or into realization, and before the new supports for that adventure are in place. For some, it appears as a sentimental attachment to the final days of school and school chums. For others, it’s the anxiety and fear of what lies ahead. Facing the unknown, post-graduation, is one of life’s largest milestones because it asks you in one way or another to set the course for your life – ready or not.
Whether you’re the graduate or the parent of the graduate, prepare for some big changes, incremental movement, and lots of course correction as you take these new steps. There are Seven Principles for Change that can help both the ones flying off and the ones remaining back in the nest. Use these principles and these questions to help you set your course for what is coming next:
Have Hope: What are the hopes and dreams for your life? You may not yet have a clue as to how to manifest them, but hope and imagination give birth to that which has not yet taken form. Hope inspires us to aim high and keep trying despite setbacks, heartbreak, and discouragement.
Spark Fire: What is your passion? How do you begin to find it? What gives you great pleasure? What areas of study or areas of life are you willing to give your all to, regardless of the competition of the job market, your own self-doubt, or the judgment of others? How will you crank up the heat of your courage to take risks to try something new?
Proceed Incrementally: Set big goals and then break them down into smaller, achievable steps and actions. Approach your future with a gradual pace that allows for reflection at each juncture and makes room for course corrections as you go—especially as you take risks. Be patient with yourself, your dreams, and your goals. Things always take more time than we think they ever will, but with persistence, flexibility, and incremental movement, you can achieve what you set out to do.
Find Community: One of the greatest losses we experience with the changes that come from post-graduation is the loss of community. Our schoolmates and familiar friends go their separate ways. Children leave their parents for schools or jobs in other cities. Who then will share your life and offer you support? Whether it’s from friends, family, experts, spiritual practice, physical practice, or like-minded groups, every change requires support. How will you reach out to find new supports for the new circumstances of your life? How will you fill your empty nest?
Align with Nature: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Graduation marks the end of one season of life and the beginning of another. What season or phase of life are you in? What thoughts, feelings, habits, or choices are driven by this particular phase of life? Are you aligned with the existing movement of the changes in your life or are you fighting in resistance? Can you feel the space between the inhale and the exhale of your own life? How long can you elongate that pause before needing to begin something new?
Bring Awareness: What are the changes that are upon you as a result of this graduation? Can you accept these changes? What do you want for your life? Which changes are demanding your attention right now? How can you respond?
Listen Deeply: The world is constantly providing you with information and feedback about the appropriateness or the effectiveness of your choices and actions. Are the choices you’re making for your next steps serving you? How do you know? Are you afraid to make a move? When you listen, or look, or pay attention, what do you hear, or see, or know? What actions do you need to take?
The day after graduation brings with it excitement, new possibilities, and perhaps some trepidation. As we move into summer, remember that one of the most pleasurable ways to engage with change is through play. So have fun, get creative, splash in the water, give yourself a genuine break. Treat the summer as the pause between the breaths, as best you can. In your refreshment, you might just awaken new dreams. School, as well as the school of life, will be back in session soon enough.
Sharon Weil is the author of ChangeAbility, How Artists, Activists and Awakeners Navigate Change (Archer/Rare Bird Books 2016) a book designed to help readers navigate all the changes of their lives, drawing upon the collective wisdom of twenty-five change-innovators across many fields. ChangeAbility Playbook, How to Navigate Your Own Change (Archer/Rare Bird Books May 2017) is a journal workbook for navigating your own personal change. Bundled with The ChangeAbility Deck: 48 Reflection Cards to Change Your Life, they make a perfect graduation gift. Sharon’s novel, Donny and Ursula Save the World, is called “the funniest book about love, sex, and GMO seeds you’ll ever read.” (Passing 4 Normal Press 2013) She is also the host of Passing 4 Normal Podcast, conversations about change. sharonweilauthor.com