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By Mel Levine, M.D.
Becoming acquainted with oneself is often a highly confusing teenage mission. It can be almost impossible for some adolescents to distinguish between who they actually are and who they want others to believe they are. In their quest for identity, teenagers constantly test out different ways of coming across to others and to themselves. They are in search of an image that feels right for them. In chapter 7 I described the building of inside insight. This quest for self-identity plays a huge role in adolescent development.
Throughout high school and college, students seldom get any respite from performing and being judged - academically, socially, and often in other arenas as well. Their teachers, their parents, and their classmates are constantly checking out how they're doing. The relentless pressure to impress can make it hard for a person to get to know himself. So much energy may be channeled into performing that there's not much left in the way of resources for exploring the inner caverns of one's true self. The growth processes described under inner direction (chapter 7) have to be built up like muscles to endure a successful landing in the startup years.
How can adolescents get to know themselves? In chapter 7 I dealt with the search for themes that reappear in different guises as a child grows up. Kids need to look back to find themes that repeat themselves. A high school or college student may discover that she has always savored activities connected to the arts or that she has always felt most fulfilled when helping someone in need. It's those recurrences that provide important clues about who someone is and where he ought to be headed.
In perceiving their own uniqueness, adolescents can start to differentiate themselves from the pack. Most of all, they need to find what Po Bronson in his book What Should I Do with My Life? calls their "sweet spot." The discovery of this often-hidden inclination fosters long-term career gratification. As Bronson put it, "Educating people is important but not enough - far too many of our most educated people are operating at quarter-speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing too little to the productive engine of modern civilization, still feeling like observers, like they haven't come close to living up to their potential. Our guidance needs to be better. We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot. Productivity explodes when people love what they do." Adults are more likely to love what they do when they learn what they love as kids.
An awareness of what really matters to a person is closely tied to the act of self-finding. Adolescents must become active believers in their beliefs, feeling profoundly what is important to them. Not all teenagers have causes that inflame their thinking or points of view that burn like hot coals within them. But those who do should blend their values and beliefs with their career plans. A student may become a veterinarian or a park ranger because she is adamant about wildlife conservation. Another may go into law or politics out of an intense conviction about the civil rights of minorities. Someone may become a policeman because thieves and murderers really stir up his outrage. A desire to ease the burden on other people or a belief in religion may influence the way a person approaches any career. When teenagers find out what they believe in, they can determine the ways in which their values can influence their chosen careers.
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