From High School to College to Career — Making Big Changes Work

A group of colleagues collaborate in an office setting. Headshot Susan Kearney

Change is never easy. Even when change is a good thing, there’s still a little part of us that clings to what we had before.

Transitioning from high school to college, or from college to your first full-time job, is definitely a good thing. And, whether you like it or not, change is coming.

There’s actually a fair amount of science behind our resistance to change. Why else would we continue to wake up early for school once it’s summer? It turns out that humans are hardwired to fight change.

Our brain activity is split into two systems: reflexive and reflective. Reflexive activity is fast and automatic as it is based on memories, habits and beliefs. Your reflexive brain reacts before you even realize it. Think about pulling your hand off a hot stove.

Then there’s your reflective brain activity, which is a little slower. Your reflective brain functions when you’re experiencing new things, processing new ideas and formulating new opinions. Think about driving or playing a sport for the first time.

It takes more effort to think about and do something new than to react out of instinct or habit, so our brains are constantly trying to maximize reflexive activities. And every time we do something without thinking about it, we make that action more of a habit that our brain doesn’t want to change.

I recently spoke on this topic at the RIMS NeXtGen Summit 2016, and I explained these two brain activities using this example borrowed from psychologist Jonathan Haidt: Picture a person riding an elephant. The rider represents the reflective — rational, logical thinking and verbal — side of our brain trying to set a new direction. But it's the elephant, the reflexive — automatic and emotional — side of our brain, that’s providing the power. Although the rider can try to lead the massive, stubborn and lumbering elephant, who has the advantage? The elephant.

It’s a perfect analogy to show what we’re up against when trying to make changes stick. Our brains become a massive beast continually chanting, “we’ve always done it that way” or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

This personal reluctance to change is the real reason why so many of our efforts fail — not because the idea was bad. In fact, one business school estimates that almost three-quarters of new ideas fail simply because people resisted them.

Excuses We’ve All Heard and Used

We come up with all kinds of excuses to resist change. How many of these five common objections to change have you used or seen used by others?

  • Loss of control: We object to change because we fear losing our grip on a new and different situation.
  • Surprise: We especially resist change when we don’t have enough time to prepare for it or feel like we don’t know where it came from.
  • Concerns about competence: If a change has even the slightest chance of making us look incompetent, we’re going to reject it.
  • More work: We will object to change if we're afraid of feeling overwhelmed or finding ourselves in a new status quo that means more work.
  • Ripple effects: If we fear that a change in one part of our lives may negatively impact us in others, we will resist change.

Knowing why we resist change, and even spelling out some of our most common excuses, isn’t that helpful when it actually comes to conquering that resistance and making change for the better. It’s better to put some strategies in your back pocket to overcome that resistance and embrace the change that you know is good for you in the long run.

Freshmen Again — Transitioning to College

Making the switch from high school to college is just the first change you’re going to have to get used to during your undergrad years. In fact, most college experiences are marked by near-constant change. You’re going to have a different schedule every semester. You’ll probably live in at least three or four different places in the span of a few years. You’ll change majors, part-time jobs and friend groups. Here are three tried-and-true ways to embrace the change that comes with moving out, living on your own, and setting your own schedule. Don’t worry — it’s only one of the biggest transitions of your life.

  1. Build on what works. You may be starting a whole new chapter of your life, but you’ll still be a student. Limit the amount of change you have to go through right away by sticking to the routines you developed as a student. For example, if you did your homework right after you got home in high school, then hit the books as soon as you’re back in your dorm room.
  2. Find allies. Don’t forget there are literally thousands of other incoming students going through the same set of changes. Look for people to support you as you make changes. Find a study partner to make sure you’re keeping up with assignments, or join a student club or organization to meet new people with similar interests.
  3. Be patient. Remember that change is hard. You’re not going to figure everything out in your first month. If you’re struggling with the changes you’re facing, don’t give up and start packing. Give it another week. Find more allies. Keep building on what works.

The Realer World — Transitioning to the Workplace

If managing the changes that came with switching to college after high school were tough, transitioning to a full-time job can be even more difficult. Mostly that’s because the changes often come with many of the fears listed above. Concerns about competence and more work will definitely come up.

But I’ve got you covered. Here are three more ideas for tackling the changes that come with finally being done with school and getting into what may very well be your first full-time gig.

  1. Find what really motivates you. Do well in high school, and you’ll get into a good college. Do well in college, and you’ll get a good job. Do well at your first job, and…lots of good things will happen, but the path to that good stuff is less clear than it was in school. Figure out what is going to motivate you to keep working hard at making the change to a full-time job work, even when you’re feeling overwhelmed or like the job isn’t what you signed up for. Is it getting your first promotion? Making more money? Helping people?
  2. Don’t get stuck in the middle. Though you may be super motivated at the start of a new job, it can sometimes be hard to keep that same level of enthusiasm going once you’ve been there a while. It’s important to constantly remind yourself of your goals, especially during days that you feel stuck in a rut. Try to keep your job fresh, add in some variety when you can, and always keep your eyes on the prize.
  3. Make your boss’ job easier. So maybe you’ve got the transition to the working world down. Then what about driving change at your new job? Making your boss’ job easier may be something you’ve heard before, but it bears repeating. If a change you propose is good for your boss, chances are it’s good for your organization and company culture.

Susan Kearney, CPCU, ARM, AU is a senior director of knowledge resources at The Institutes.