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One thing leads to another

February 7, 2012 | 16 Comments

Mr. Keillor,

I am seventeen going on eighteen and moving forward on college research and SAT planning and wondering what I am going to be doing for the rest of my life.

Yet in all of this I have become very apathetic. I don't have a goal or an idea of what I want to do with my life. It is bothersome to be told that you have to decide the entirety of your life in a few short months, but so, I don't really care. I have found that I do not very much care about what happens. At the moment, I don't even want to do my homework.

Do you have any thoughts on this, any observations or rectifications for my situation? How might I find a legitimate goal and the courage to chase it?

- Brendan Laughlin  
Fairfield, OH


I have to do my work, Brendan, and you have to do yours. The alternative is the long grim slide into torpor and depression, not a pleasant prospect. Take the SAT and prime yourself to do well on it, and look carefully at colleges. The next four years can be a beautiful time in your life, when you gather up your forces and plunge deeply into the sphere of ideas and accomplish intellectual growth that will shape your life.  It's quite okay not to know exactly what you want to do with your life. Most people don't live according to a plan. They improvise. I guess you feel deadlines pressing on you but they're not as heavy and irreversible as you may imagine. One thing leads to another: your high school experience points you toward something further. Meanwhile, why not keep a journal of observations this year, as an exercise for your own benefit, to sharpen your experience of your own life. I mean a journal that isn't about your inner life but rather an account of what you see and hear around you. More important than having a long-term plan is to live your life with intensity and conviction. Wish you well. 


Observation Is A Great Teacher

Those whose plans are certain
Are often those who change
Those who keep a journal
Know this is nothing strange.

Good advice, especially the journal.

Brendan, perhaps your "apathy" is just a defense mechanism against the fear that comes with not knowing the future. It happens to all of us -- some of us stop caring, some procrastinate, some just move along. Garrison's right about college; it can be a wonderful time in your life. Sadly, I had to wait until I was middle-aged to attend college. It's the only regret I have in life. Go to college, get involved, take some classes about which you know nothing. You will be amazed!

Geez, what pablum, I've been thinking, wondering if the previous commenters had ever been in the mental space where Brendan finds himself. Let me start with GK's last bit of advice about keeping a journal. It seems like a prescription, "say X number of Hail Mary's," "do 50 jumping jacks," and then "take down the top ten perceptions of the day in your journal." Hmm, apply a microscope to your life and you might find that there is something there after all.
That is bitter medicine if the microscope viewfinder comes up empty and one isn't the kind of creative spirit to make gold from straw.
I'm a little sorry that Brendan isn't marching to someone else's drummer, since he doesn't have his own. One can be mightily motivated to pretend to be going through all the motions of homework, SAT, zeroing in on career, just by looking at the way this economy can "remainder" individuals who lack a viable track record of conforming, plus skills and, say, flexibility. I call that the rat race; never look up or you'll miss the main chance.
At some point, though, it seems to me it does strike one that finding one's identity is not the same as conforming with every ounce of energy, and that ceasing to follow the assigned path is better sooner than later. But that's not apathy. (It might feel like that, like being derailed compared to "everyone else," and for who knows how long, though.) That's the total opposite of apathy. Let's see, it took the Libyans what, 40 years to figure that out?

Hello Ellen,

From one coast to another, I just want to say isn't it great that we live in a country where we can "agree to disagree?"

Following an assigned path? I suppose it depends on "the path," but more than that, who created "the path?"

Apathy = Indifference = Not Interested

People often feign indifference; they pretend they're not interested when they're actually afraid of change. Many times they even fool themselves.

As far as Garrison's suggestion regarding journaling, don't you think Brendan understood he was asking for guidance from a writer? What else would a writer suggest?

No matter who you are or where you live in our great country, being 17 going on 18 is frightening! So many choices; so many changes.

I wish Brendan the best in all his endeavors.

Sandy in San Clemente, I wasn't going to post anything, but then I thought that maybe Brendan needed that other point of view, and why not give him that option. And I thought that GK had probably written the letter himself, because of the way it was structured, and the way it set him up to answer like that. Surely his teachers, college advisers, parents, aunts, etc., can say the same thing. As you say, he maybe needed to hear it from Garrison Keillor himself. But I'm remembering the person when I was that age who told me, "Don't bother studying the things you're good at; go after the most inaccessible things that you're worst at." She was about 30 years older than all the other mentor types, and the different angle on things was a golden nugget to keep. So I was wishing to put out a different angle, and if truth be told, I didn't think it would actually make it to the website.
Brendan... be well.

Telescope, not Microscope!

Ms. Dibble's quibble misread gk's suggestion which was: "I mean a journal that isn't about your inner life but rather an account of what you see and hear around you."

The only thing gk left out is the excellent advice he gives in his video The Man On The Radio in the Red Shoes, as well as in the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop, which is to go for a walk each day. In this video clip he points out that good writing is about the real world; writing is not narcissism.

Simply put,

Hickory Dickory Dock
We need to walk and talk

When down we're run
and nothing's fun

We need to have a good walk.

Thank you, Brendan, for writing about your apathy, not yet finding a goal. Many others in your age range may be having the same experience.

I remember feeling that way as a teen, with no brothers or sisters, dealing with the death of my mother at age 16 and my father/best friend at 18.

What helped me most was discovering other people, young and old, who saw themselves as responsible citizens of humanity. Some of them were active in a club named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was widely known and respected for his writing and speaking his valuable thoughts about why and how to live life better. The Emerson Club proved quickly valuable to me, helping me through my grief and apathy into a clear sense of purpose for my life. Their nominating committee soon amazed me by asking me to serve as club president. I did -- and soon afterward sought vocational counseling, during which I changed my career goals. Now in retirement I am glad I did.

You can find such a group near you, I predict, if you will go to the location finding service at and you may check with your region's information and referral service about where you could find afforable counseling on your vocation.

I remember being very worried before going into college that I should have been feeling more ready, that I should know what I was supposed to be doing. The nice thing is the first two years are generally the same prerequisites, no matter what path you choose. I did switch majors but could still use the classes that then weren't applicable as electives. The nice thing is that those first two years expose you to new material and possible interests that help you to figure out what you might want to do. I ended up going with a Bachelor's Degree in Business figuring it would be a good base whether I ended up working in a large organization, or even if I wanted to go into business for myself. I do know many people whose ultimate careers weren't necessarily related to what they took in college. Life isn't the same as in generations past when you'd pick a career path and a company and spend your entire working life there!


Good for you for playing "devil's advocate."
Yes, alternative points of view are always good.

The average undergrad student changes their major several times. Graduate school is about having a plan in life; undergraduate college is about learning both inside and outside the classroom. Study, but both in your majors and your fun electives. And then join clubs, make friends, go hiking, stay up too late and order pizza for delivery at 1:45am! Learn and live and love, and the plan can wait another three years at least once you've a better idea who you are. There's so much you don't know, but it will come in time and bring clarity with it. And if someone says those exact words to you again when you're 60, they'll be just as true as they are now. Good luck, Brendan!

My daughter spent her childhood hating to be asked "what do you want to be when you grow up?" I told her she didn't have to decide until she grew up. Go to a good liberal arts college with lots of choices and take whatever interests you the first year. Also, don't be afraid that you might make a mistake in choosing colleges. We told our daughter you can always transfer and she said no, she never wanted to do that. Guess what? She transferred in the middle of her first year. It works out. And now that she's grown up she knows what she wants to be and what she wants to be if that doesn't work out.

Great advice. At age 61, I'm just beginning my Master's Work. I teach pre-school and it was becoming obvious I would not want to sit on the floor with little kids the rest of my life. Now I'm preparing to be a teacher and mentor of college students who will teach little kids
in the future. It's true -- there's so much I don't know, but with the experience I have and a Graduate degree, I'll know a little more.
Everyone's advice has been excellent. Hopefully Brendan feels a little better about his future.

Brendan I was in your very shoes about 40 years ago. I decided not to go straight from high school into college as I was ready for a break from the books. My parents didn't care for the idea but said it was my life. I took two years to work a few jobs, travel and make friends apart from those I went to school with, was a great 'education', those two years. I did eventually go to college and changed majors a few times. All these years later I am not working at what I have a degree in, and I'm fine with that. I found what matters is finding an occupation that I could go to every day with enthusiasm not dread. My degree was in engineering, I now manage a book store. Why? Because I love books and the people who love books. It may take a long time to find a career that satisfies both the bank and your heart, but you will. Have fun and don't take life too serious, it'll make you crazy!

Brendan --
Hang in there! You've received many perspectives in these responses, and I am particularly partial to Ani's, just before mine, because I think it IS okay to not go to college immediately after high school.

I want you to be sure to reflect on Garrison's last comment before closing:
"More important than having a long-term plan is to live your life with intensity and conviction."

If you aren't yet sure what your convictions are, that is a tough piece of advice to follow. You'll figure it out, though, if you get out into the world ... perhaps it is through volunteering in your local community, or just reading, or just finding one of those companies which have a place for students in the 'gap year'. Whatever it is, I suggest you DO something.

If you google "gap year" you'll see lots of programs and perspectives on options. Here's a gap year program which (I think) I first heard about on NPR and it sounded wonderful:

After taking some time to look at all your options, don't be surprised, if you still end up taking the SAT and going the college route. Whatever you end up DO-ing will put you in a MUCH better place than you'll be in if you just stay home and do nothing! You'll figure out what you believe in, and you WILL be able to live your life with the intensity and conviction Garrison refers to!


I think it was John Lennon who said "Life is what happens to you in between your plans" and don't sweat the small stuff and in the big scheme of things, it's all small stuff.

This is not a dress rehearsal...Enjoy!!

Contrary to absolutely everyone, I would say this to young Brendan: You don't like the idea that you have to decide what to do with the rest of your life in a few months? Then don't do that. Take your time. Figure out what you want to do before you set out on definite path. The college buildings aren't going anywhere.

Garrison Keillor says your college years can be a time when you "plunge deeply into the sphere of ideas and accomplish intellectual growth that will shape your life." And yes, they can be that. But they can also be a time when you plunge headlong into debt and a chain of events that will shape your life in a way that doesn't suit you.

No matter what you do, you can't be expected to be certain about anything. But neither can those who are advising you be expected to be certain about what's right for you or what will secure your future.

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