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What Makes A Great Extracurricular?

“Can You Really Just Follow Your Dreams?”

For anyone who has been having trouble with finding “passion” in their career pursuits I highly recommend reading up on Cal Newport’s series on redefining the pursuit of passion. It’s a refreshing breath of air for those tired of hearing advice about “following your dreams.”

The crux of Newport’s argument is that passion and motivation are derived from self-improvement rather than from external factors such as landing a dream job. It’s a hard pill to swallow as the easier course of action is to blame things around us rather than to dig a little deeper and find the intrinsic source of a problem.

Even with this mantra, Newport writes in one of his more recent posts that there are certain career traits that could disqualify a job from being fulfilling. Jobs that fall under these criteria would be impossible to develop a passion for, regardless of self-improvement. The traits are…

  1. The job presents few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant skills that are rare and valuable.
  2. The job focuses on something you think is useless or perhaps even actively bad for the world.
  3. The job forces you to work with [difficult people].

Sounds like a miserable job, doesn’t it?

With each of these disqualifiers we see the same theme present itself: the job isn’t helping you develop as a person and at worst is actually causing you to regress.

Ask any college student if they’d want a job like this in the future, and you’ll get a resounding, “No way!” However, when you take a look around college campuses at the extracurricular that students are stuffing their resumes with, and you’re bound to see a lot of discontentment and frustration.

The Fallacy of “Leadership Experience”

For many college students, extracurricular represent opportunities to extend education beyond the surprisingly narrow walls of the classroom. However, the clamor for “leadership experience” by both employers and grad school admission committee’s has led to a dilution of the term of “leadership.” Students will throw themselves at chances to add “treasurer of club X” or “member of group Y” to their resume, but as HackCollege’s Emily Chapman notes in a great post, “there is a difference between being a campus leader… and actually leading people on campus in creating something.” 

Leadership lies not in a title or a certificate, but rather in the ability to innovate and lead people.

Sure there are an unlimited number of opportunities for students to get involved in something, but they are all far from equal. The best extracurriculars are the ones that actively challenge you to become a better person with each experience. Not the ones that sound the best, are with the most prestigious organization, or the give you the most responsibility, but the ones that force you to develop as a person.

Case in point: Last summer, one of my close friends got a great “internship” with a heralded local author. What did the “internship” end up consisting of though? Coffee runs, mail runs, and feeding the author’s cat. Glamorous, I know. She took about 1 month of this before deciding enough was enough and moved on to other opportunities.

If the extracurricular you’re involved with doesn’t challenge you to constantly develop both personally and professionally, it isn’t worth your time.

So what makes a great extracurricular?

Over my years in college so far, I’ve had the chance to experience a fair share of opportunities to be involved with, and it definitely took me some time to find the extracurricular I really wanted to throw myself into. Luckily, I’ve had the great fortune of finding extracurricular that I’m both passionate about and have given me the connections to develop professionally. Taking cues from Cal Newport on his disqualifiers, I’ve created a list of things that made these two experiences stand out as great EC’s for me:

  1. The extracurricular gives you the flexibility to be creative with your unique skills and talents.
  2. The extracurricular provides you with a community that can give you positive feedback.
  3. The extracurricular serves a purpose rather than the self-interests of those involved.

This list is far from being the be-all, end-all of what makes a great extracurricular, but I think it’s a great starting point for anyone looking to find a purpose or organization to get behind.

What do you think makes a great extracurricular? Do you agree/disagree with my list? Let me know in the comments!