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Will You Sprint, Stroll or Stumble Into a Career?

Source | The New York Times : By

At the age of 18, G. Stanley Hall left his home in the tiny village of Ashfield, Mass., for Williams College, just 35 miles away, with a goal to “do something and be something in the world.” His mother wanted him to become a minister, but the young Stanley wasn’t sure about that plan. He saw a four-year degree as a chance to explore.

Though Hall excelled at Williams, his parents, who were farmers, considered his undergraduate years a bit erratic. He didn’t think he had the requirements for a pastor, but nonetheless enrolled in Union Theological Seminary in New York after graduation. The big city was intoxicating, and living there persuaded him to abandon his religious studies. After securing a loan, he set off for Germany to study philosophy, travel and visit the theaters, bars and dance halls of Berlin.

“What exactly are you doing over there?” his father sternly asked. Hall added physiology and physics to his academic pursuits and told his parents he was thinking about getting a Ph.D. in philosophy. “Just what is a Doctor of Philosophy?” his mother wanted to know.

His parents wanted him to come home and get a real job, and even Hall, having “scarcely tried my hand in the world to know where I can do anything,” wondered what was next. He was out of money and in debt, so he returned home after his parents refused to support him financially. He was 27 years old.

Hall’s story is similar to that of many young Americans today. They go off to college, resist pressures to choose a job-connected major, then drift after graduation, often short of money and any real plan. But here’s the difference: Stanley Hall grew up in a totally different America, the one of the mid-1800s.

We think this kind of lengthy takeoff is relatively new, but even in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the economy offered fewer career choices, there were college graduates who roamed through their third decade of life. Hall was an outlier, of course, as most of his generation launched into adulthood right after high school, if they even went. But his story might serve to lessen the anxiety of today’s parents about their own children’s long stumble toward independence: Stanley Hall went on to great success.

He eventually earned an advanced degree in psychology, taught at Antioch College, Harvard and Johns Hopkins and became president of Clark University in Massachusetts, where he developed a fascination with the period in life between childhood and adulthood. He founded the American Psychological Association and in 1904 wrote an influential book about a new life stage he called “adolescence.”

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