My wife Stacy and I narrowly missed an argument last night. She’s five months pregnant and was at a prenatal pilates class. It was intimate: only one other class-taker and then the teacher. Evidently, Stacy’s classmate is an old pro at the pregnancy thing; this is her third pregnancy. (This is our first, and it came after a long, grueling period of emotional and financial turmoil involving work with three separate fertility specialists.)

The teacher shared that she’s had similar struggles getting pregnant, but that it’s something she wants in the future. Stacy’s classmate piped up that it will happen—at the “right time.” That’s not something that someone who’s been through years of hormone therapy, ovarian overstimulation during egg retrievals, failed embryonic implantations, and ultimately miscarriage wants to hear. The implication, as Stacy pointed out during her rebuke to this woman, is that there is a “wrong” time—and how can you imply that I’m wrong to do everything in my power to have the child I so desperately want?

Having been half of Team Get Pregnant Already—my primary responsibilities having been attending to the mother-to-be in mourning as well as the credit card debt that wouldn’t die—I could sympathize. Who is anyone else to tell us what’s right or wrong, in terms of timing or otherwise, when it comes to growing the family?

But there was a voice in my head that spoke out, even though I chose to demur with my wife for the sake of pre-bedtime peace in the household. The corrective thought: instead of getting into judgments about the right or wrong time, I believe in *due* time.

For our internal desires for our lives to be realized (in the sense of becoming real in the external world), there is no getting around the time they must take, the stages they must pass through. Words like *marinate, percolate, incubate* all come to mind here—words that entail two things: the development of something; and the passage of time.

I’m 35 years old. It took me until I was 30 to move resolutely (more or less) into the field of college counseling. I needed most of my 20s to learn how to advocate for myself as a business owner; how to become a more effective writer and writing coach; how I could bring my own experiences, interests, and pursuits to bear on guiding young people about to step out of their family homes on their own for the very first time in their lives.

During college, I believed that writing was purely an act of will, that I needed to sit in front of the computer and think up my ideas, and then dig up some words that I’d then string together in sentences. The result: I came out of the creative writing program with such terrible writer’s block and such a diminished sense of my own agency as a creator that I’ve spent every year since then in some stage of creative recovery. The only glimpses of creative work that had any sort of pulse to it at all were in the moments when I was writing or acting fueled by some form of tumult in my personal life.

Did it need to take that long? I ask myself that question often. Part of my own recovery has been about acknowledging that my thoughts and feelings emerge on their own accord, in whatever time they take to surface. I can only give them space to breathe and grow; there is no forcing them. But that could take many lifetimes. I only have one.

And so sometimes that triggers me to swing back into the harder, more disciplinarian part of my personality, bring ye olde hammer down on myself for doing so much loosey-goosey drifting. But that kind of pressure is no good. There’s a snapping shut of the creative presence in me; I picture a sea anemone feeling out the ocean water around it does the instant it perceives a threat nearby.

What’s the solution? Where is the middle ground? And what does it have to do with going off to college?

Parents often lament that there is no longer space in the world for their kids to explore as they come of age. “Things weren’t like this when I went off to college. You weren’t expected to know what you were doing with the rest of your life. But now it feels like if you haven’t already figured it all out, you’re not going to be competitive. What do you think?”

Yes and no.

It’s true that the admissions landscape, as well as that of the job market, is broadly more competitive. Students and graduates competing for placement have to make more compelling cases for why they’re the right fit for that spot. They have to have a plan for crossing from high school to college and from college to the working world (or grad school) that includes a range of options and contingencies.

Making the best case for your candidacy and forming an exhaustive and adaptive plan are a lot of work by themselves. But here is the key ingredient: knowing the why—as far as it can be known. That’s where the real, sustained effort comes in. It requires you to make your own space.

Let me explain.

College admissions officials know better than just about anyone that students often change their minds, their majors, and their interests over the course of their college careers. You take a class in a subject you’ve never had any exposure to before, you join a new student group, and suddenly you’re in love with something you never knew existed. That’s a big part of what undergrad is all about.

What college admissions counselors admire, however, is the courage and self-awareness to take stock of what you’ve been doing over the past few years, name the trajectory you’re on at this moment in time, and do your homework so that you can articulate how their school can support the steps you’re taking for your future. Show them your determination, that you are highly organized and taking a serious, proactive, and realistic approach to managing your way through life, and they’ll understand your potential to contribute to their campus in the coming years.

The same goes for students getting ready to leave college. Show your potential employers why you’re right for the job and why the job is right for you. What relevant experience do you have? What experiences do you want? *Why*? What questions are you trying to answer about the direction you’re headed in? And then, to round it all out, what non-work experiences help to make you a relatable, interesting person?

In other words, you make space for yourself to explore by doing everything in your power to continue in a direction that fits you as an individual. You are already in motion, on some trajectory. While you can’t know everything about where it leads, you can work continually to check in on where you seem to be headed, and make adjustments according to where you want to be headed.

If human behavior interests you, for example, perhaps you’re considering a psychology major. But why rest there when nearly every undergraduate school has a psych program? What are some of the classes, areas of concentration, or experiential programs that the colleges on your list have to offer? Are you interested in the effects of drugs on the brain? Perhaps you can find a pharmacology class. The ways in which people behave in groups? Maybe there’s a concentration in organizational psychology. Are you interested in working with victims of abuse? See what internships your potential colleges offer.

The bottom line is that nothing has changed about the way in which we explore our paths through life. We need time and experience; most of what forms us is a process of trial and error. The only difference between now and “back then” is that college-bound students and graduates need the mindfulness to self-reflect, the diligence to do it consistently, the clarity to recalibrate as often as needed, and the ability to articulate their progress (in an appealing way) to the people with the power to open up doors to opportunity.

As with writing, in any creative undertaking (which includes actively exploring your future) you exercise your will not in the action of creating, but in consciously making the time and space for your creations to emerge—in due time. “Due” comes from the Latin “debere,” which means “to owe”; what you owe yourself is that space and time to take every opportunity as it comes, and adjust your plan according to whatever hand life deals you.

Looking back on my career path and on our journey to almost-parenthood, I can’t see all the time leading up to this point as anything other than due time. The struggle brought us closer, forced us to communicate more effectively and bring a higher level of order to our household. What comes when you’ve paid your dues?