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Adolescents - Conducting the Experiments: An Excerpt From Ready or Not, Here Life Comes

Page 5 of 5

By Mel Levine, M.D.

Putting Everyday Life in Compartments

Although raspberry sorbet and marinara sauce are both delicious, it is not a good idea to mix them together. Compartmentalization involves keeping the different parts of a life separate enough so they don't compete or interfere with each other. But figuring out how to compartmentalize is hard. Many teenagers and grown-ups have never met this challenge.

First of all, the adolescent asks herself, "What should I put in my compartments?" The answer is the different activities or parts of life that are important to her. The diagram below portrays one teenager's compartments:

Ben's Compartments
family life social life schoolwork
my dog Reggie religion computer games/TV
football things I worry about job at the pet store


Using this diagram, Ben can think about how and when he will tend to each compartment and, most of all, how he can make sure that he deals with or thinks about them mainly one at a time, although he may see important connections between them.

Some students have trouble hitting the books because their social compartment overflows into the others all the time. One high school senior admitted, "In the middle of my work I start thinking about girls, and then it's all over." Unfortunately, for too many kids, family life and schoolwork deteriorate because there's so much social excitement in their lives. Grades go down, family arguments flare up, the dog doesn't get fed, and that socially obsessed teenager quits his job at the pet store.

There's a trite old saying that admonishes everyone to "work hard and play hard." The truth is that there's enough time to do both well if activities are not allowed to interfere with each other. That's why adolescents need to concentrate on getting their interests and responsibilities tightly compartmentalized.

Tentative Planning

I can't believe how often I ask a teenager what he wants to do when he grows up, and he says, "I have no idea" or "I never think about it." This is usually followed by the unreassuring comment, "And none of my friends do either." That's an unacceptable answer. A kid needs to have some idea or else the future is just an ugly blur.

In past generations it was common for kids to do what their parents did; observing their parents provided teens with a preview of what their adult life would be like. In many parts of the world, most students attend vocational high schools, where by age sixteen they have acquired a clear notion of how they are to earn a living someday. This practice is based on the flimsy assumption that by age fourteen or fifteen a kid can be certain what he'll want to be doing as an adult. That's just plain wrong. Nevertheless, it does help a kid think through his future so that he is less likely to be ambushed by reality at age twenty-two.

I tell kids that they must have an idea of what they are likely to be doing when they grow up, but that they can change their mind hundreds of times between now and then. Many people do. But to have no view of the future can lead to anxiety and hard times in the early twenties. Every time a teenager comes up with a fresh new idea of what she wants to do, she is actually trying that ambition on for size. She lives with it for a while and then either keeps it up on her screen, modifies it somewhat, or deletes it and uploads another possibility.

Teenagers, including college students, should shop for future work. In recent years, internships or apprenticing opportunities have become increasingly available. These experiences enable a student to test the waters, to spend some time assisting (and hopefully observing carefully) people in their daily work in a specific career. Summer internships can give students opportunities to preview some options. I have known resourceful teenagers who have designed their own internships, volunteering for a local newspaper or a political campaign, helping out in a welding shop, or doing clerical work for an Internet company. While on the job, an adolescent should engage in active spying, keenly observing the permanent workers, thinking about what it might be like to have their activities and their lives. They also can decide if the daily subject matter interests them while getting a taste of some of the drudgery.

While kids need to have some fun during vacations, at least a part of every teenage summer ought to be spent amid a cadre of working adults. Such experiences should be seen not solely as a way of harvesting credentials to get into a prestigious college, but also as an indispensable means of shaping the way teens think about work. It can help them become keen interpreters of their future world (chapter 8).

In planning ahead, kids can think about the numerous roles that come up within a career. Someone who studies business may end up selling real estate, running a restaurant, operating a car wash, or becoming head of a major corporation. A person interested in religion could become a clergyman, a teacher of religion, a writer about religion, or a missionary in Tanzania. The good news is that a teenager doesn't have to decide on the exact job, just which areas look like strong possibilities. Most students entering medical school have no idea what specialty they'll end up in, but they're really excited about becoming physicians.

How should teenagers ponder what they want to do with their lives? They need a combination of approaches. First, they should follow their instincts and passions. Second, they should think back over experiences that have most interested them. Third, they should consider adults they know or have learned about and ask themselves if they'd like to be like any of them. Finally, they should try to find out as much as possible about work that attracts them. Someone interested in health care should visit or volunteer at a local hospital. A person who wants to do something in aviation should talk to some pilots and visit an aircraft maintenance facility.

Some kids become too negative too soon. A student might declare, "I'd really like to be a doctor, but I don't think I could get into medical school," or "I'd give anything to be a policeman, but I'd never be able to pass the examination," or "I want to study to be a curator at a zoo, but those jobs are too hard to get." Those kinds of statements slam the doors for promising people, doors that would stay open if they had the courage to dream. Adolescents should focus intently on what they want over what they think they can get. There's a good chance they'll end up getting much more than they ever thought they could - and enjoying it more too.

From Ready or Not, Here Life Comes by Mel Levine. Copyright ©2005 by Mel Levine. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.