Staying true to yourself is overrated

This is especially true if your sense of identity has never been thrown into crisis and is largely in line with the outlooks and values that you grew up with. Adolescents necessarily go through a period of “identity crisis” as a result of the changes in their bodies, hormones, and brain development. One of the great lessons of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson is that this crisis period is an optimal time to explore one’s identity: to question their morals, preconceptions, roles, and relationships, and to arrive either at a renewed commitment to those principles, perspectives, etc. or to form new ones. This phenomenon is called “identity achievement.” At the opposite end of the spectrum is “identity foreclosure,” where individuals have a high level of commitment to their self-concept with a very low level of exploration.

An example of a foreclosed individual is the person who joins the family business or enters his father’s profession with nary a consideration of alternative paths. The danger, of course, is a mid-life crisis. Adolescent expert Susan M. Kools has shown that youth in foster care are especially vulnerable to identity foreclosure, since they are pushed into adulthood earlier than their peers.

It sounds counter-intuitive—even irresponsible or heretical—to suggest it, but what if we took a step back from pushing our young people to commit immediately and steadfastly to their goals, and instead encouraged them to look more deeply into themselves, and explore their options more broadly? Identity “moratorium” is what psychologist James Marcia defines as the status of individuals who are low on commitment, but actively exploring their identity. In this view, “crisis” is a necessary stage of identity development. 

Having your deepest beliefs tested leads to solid commitment. The Amish know this, which is why they’ve instituted the practice of rumspringa among their youth. Go forth, they say, and figure out your options. You might make some poor choices along the way, but we are here for you if and when you decide to come back and become an adult in our community.

I don’t want to hear any arguments about how we don’t have the luxury to allow young people in care to go “find themselves.” But if you insist, first tell me why a small but steady paycheck earned at an unfulfilling job should be “good enough” for our most vulnerable youth. And then explain how a tunnel-visioned approach to education and job training is working out in our current world.

As Seth Godin reminds us today in his daily blog, we no longer live in an industrial economy where we can readily plug ourselves into predefined jobs given the right set of skills and training. Today’s “connection economy” rewards people who are creative and flexible and, above all, know themselves well enough to leverage and package their singularity to produce valuable work. Job training is necessary, yes, and I am not fundamentally opposed to vocational education. What I do object to is vocational training that isn’t enhanced with opportunities for self-reflection and exposure to the broad variety of interesting and impactful work that people do in this world.

I’ll be working out some concrete programming ideas to accomplish this, so stay tuned.

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