I recently spoke to some students in my (former) high school about what I do and saw the blank stares looking back at me.
Most of these students' lives revolve around school: wake up, go to school, stay for extracurricular activities, come home, go for extra tuition, do homework, sleep, and repeat.
That was me years ago.
When you are 17 and when so much emphasis is placed on academics and the need to get "straight As," it is hard to imagine life outside and after that. And then asking that same 17 year old to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives seems to me like throwing someone into the ocean without a flotation device or navigation system and asking them to decide which country they want to go to and to swim there. That person likely has no clue which sea or ocean they are even in! They might not even have ever set foot into the sea or ocean or any body of water before either.
I came to doing my PhD by serendipity and mistake. A department chair had told me on the first day of university that I would be doing my undergraduate thesis. I didn't know she was the department chair when I first chatted with her but I did eventually find out halfway through the conversation. And when she told me I was to write my undergraduate thesis, I was too afraid to say no. And so I found myself years later writing that thesis.
And I couldn't have been more thankful that that younger me was too afraid to say no.
One of the most common thing I hear when people find out I'm working towards a Neuroscience PhD is: "You must be very intelligent."
I find that notion completely absurd. In high school, nobody called me "intelligent."
"Above average," yes.
"Could try harder," yes.
"Intelligent"...not so much.
School, as far as I was concerned, was a nightmare.
My 180° moment came when a psychologist in Canada noticed something was "very off" and got me tested.
It turns out, if you want me to read and comprehend, I do it at the speed of a tortoise.
So I now have an assigned specialist in university who advises my program chair and professors on how to help me. My grades jumped once they gave me the accommodations I needed.
The 17-year-old me would never have thought that I would one day do a PhD. The 17-year-old me couldn't even wrap my head around the idea of doing more education voluntarily!
And here we have, every year, 17-year-old students being asked to decide what they want to do for the rest of their lives.
I fully believe that people should take time off school to explore. Travel, volunteer, work with people different from you, and learn some life skills.
By the way, I learned in Canada that tortoises can do PhDs, too. They just need the right terrain and the right pair of shoes. You cannot expect the tortoise to fly to a destination like a bird, but you can expect the tortoise to get there if you let it walk with a good pair of shoes.