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Watermelon Seeds: Retaking Control of Your Happiness
Professor Jim Pouliopoulos is a marketing professor at Bentley University and founding director of the professional sales department. He has been at Bentley for the past 13 years. This piece is adapted from his presentation at the 2016 TEDx Bentley U conference.
One of my fondest childhood memories is of eating unending slices of watermelon, in the backyard on lazy summer nights. My family had picnic dinners almost every evening. My brother and I would reach for the watermelon as soon as we could and were always warned, jokingly I think, not to eat the seeds -- or a watermelon might grow in our stomachs. We did everything we could to get rid of the seeds, either spitting them out all over the place, or tightly gripping them between our fingers and catapulting them into the night sky.
Year after year, we would play this watermelon game and at some point, it occurred to me to wonder why our backyard wasn’t overflowing with growing watermelons. Not even one took root in all those years. I couldn’t figure it out. Where were all the watermelons?
Missing Watermelons and Misplaced Dreams
Years later, those playfully-abused watermelon seeds made me think about kids growing up today, and the pressures they’re under. Around 3.3 million students currently graduate each year from high school, and a full 70 percent go onto college.
If you can lasso one between their unending tasks, and ask them a question, most will share a similar story. Looking back over their lives, they’ll realize that most of their time was spent in directed activities. They had very little free time left over to explore, conquer boredom, explore new interests or discover their own, unique abilities.
Many of those directed activities were valuable. Fun even. But they included a layer of pressure kids felt acutely. They needed to achieve, get the trophy, go for the gold and push, push, push. All this took place under the watchful eyes of parents, teachers and other assorted, well-meaning grownups, like coaches and mentors.
Where Are All the Dreamers?
Since the 1960s, unstructured playtime for kids has been decreasing at a steady rate. By 1970, 80 percent of third graders walked to school without adult supervision. Today, less than 5 percent do so.
Even fewer can be seen outside, dreaming the day away in imaginative play. We’ve seen the rise of the helicopter parent, and there’s less time for kids to hang out and be kids than ever before.
The Pressure Piles On
The lack of time and unending stream of goal-oriented activities starts early and accelerates throughout life, intensifying through middle school and ramping up during high school. Before you know it, almost every waking minute is spent engaged in activities geared towards landing a seat in the right college.
The pressure accelerates. And, what happens once the college years begin? More of the same.
It’s no wonder 30 percent of freshmen drop out. There’s lots of externally-based pressure, geared towards landing the right job after graduation, with very little time left over to explore topics of interest or to enjoy learning for learning’s sake. And, less than two-thirds of all college students go on to graduate.
Could this pressure be leading today’s college students into making the wrong career choices? To me it seems we are so busy getting there, we don’t pause to consider where we want to end up.
It’s disheartening that around 80 percent of young adults report wishing they were in a completely different career than the one they prepared for all through college.
And this trend doesn’t let up as you get older. Most workers say they feel actively disengaged, unmotivated or dissatisfied with their jobs.
It has to leave you wondering: where are all the happy workers?
Lost Watermelons and Unhappy Workers
The current dearth of happy workers is a lot like the absence of growing watermelons, in the backyard of my youth. And, the reason for the absence of both appears to be the same. Happy, satisfied workers and backyards full of watermelons are scarce, due to external pressures and loss of control.
Those watermelon seeds my brother and I catapulted around our backyard were squeezed between our little boy’s fingers about as tightly as anything could possibly be squeezed. Sure, that made for a pretty impressive trajectory, but the seeds landed, invariably, in areas unconducive to growth. Maybe they didn’t receive the right amounts of water or sunlight, or maybe they landed on concrete or grass. Maybe they became a bird’s lunch, before they could become a watermelon.
In the same way, children, teenagers and young adults are squeezed and squeezed by external pressure -- from parents, teachers and peers, who ironically, truly love them and wish them only the best.
Kids today fly, full of fierce trajectory, out of middle school, into high school, college and finally, land feet first into the world of work. Rarely do they land in areas conducive to growth. At each stop, more and more pressure is applied until they realize they’re spending their days where they won’t thrive, be happy or find true purpose or success.
Loss of Control
The lack of independence and ability to explore on their own has shifted children’s locus of control -- away from self-reliance and the ability to steer their own ships. More people today experience life as being controlled externally, as opposed to holding the steering wheel themselves.
If you have an internal locus of control, you consider yourself responsible for both your successes and failures. This enables you to learn more readily from mistakes and move on. If you have an external locus of control, you hold others responsible for both the wins and losses you experience. Studies indicate that people able to develop an internal locus of control are happier in their jobs, healthier and more involved in the game of life.
As recently as 2002, the average college student was more externally focused than 80 percent of students polled back in the 1960s. That disturbing trend has not righted itself.
Job and overall life satisfaction has declined, and with it anxiety, depression and even suicide rates, have escalated. People have responded to external pressure and the lack of control over their own lives with emotional upset, dissatisfaction and, in some cases, profound unhappiness.
Luckily, people are not hapless watermelon seeds in the wind. People -- including you -- can actively change their perspective and with it, their future.
Learn more about how regret can fuel success by watching Pouliopoulos’ talk from the 2015 TEDxBentleyU event.
Growing Your Own Garden
As a college student or recent graduate, your first job is to recapture an internal locus of control. You do this by recognizing the power of each and every action and decision you make. You learn to take responsibility for the good and bad; accept your failures and learn from them; and acknowledge your wins and learn from them, too.
There are seeds of greatness in everyone. Be your own, unique watermelon seed and enable yourself to take root by asking what you want to do, instead of what you want to be.
What you want to be may lead you to a job title. What you want to do may lead you instead to a vocation.
Think about the things you enjoy doing and always consider the journey. What it takes to get to the destination is just as important, as the destination. You’re going to spend a lot of time on the journey and you want to enjoy the ride, rather than bask in a title that just doesn’t fit. Ask yourself “what do I like doing”, rather than, “what do I do well”?
My colleague, Bentley law professor Liz Brown, talks about a key question: What do you like being good at doing?
How to Grow a Watermelon and be a Happy Worker
When you find your passion, unique strengths and purpose in life, the next step is finding the right place to let those dreams flourish. Just like a watermelon seed, you need a nurturing place to grow, away from pecking bird’s beaks and punishing elements.
Find or create a tribe -- a support network of like-minded people who “get” you, can work with you and will protect your dreams.
Locate a role where you thrive under the warm glow of doing work that is intrinsically satisfying -- rather than suffering under the heat lamp of the expectations of external observers. Immerse yourself in topics and pursuits knowledge that excites you.
It’s your life and your watermelon seed. Keep the seed-eaters and dream-killers away. If we all nourish our own watermelon seed, the world will be filled with happy, successful people -- plus, an abundance of the fruit of our labor.
Learn more about Bentley’s PreparedU Project, which examines challenges facing millennial workers, the companies that employ them and the colleges and universities that prepare them.
U.S. News & World Report ranked Bentley No. 2 among regional universities in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, up from No. 3 last year, highlighting Bentley’s high-quality faculty and academic programs along with the strong value that students receive from a Bentley education.