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Las Vegas — A contestant plays Plinko on “The Price Is Right “ live at Bally’s Resort and Casino
Las Vegas — A contestant plays Plinko on “The Price Is Right” live at Bally’s Resort and Casino. Credit: Barry Sweet/ZUMA Press.

Popularized by “The Price is Right” television show, the often-infuriating game of Plinko presents a metaphor for life’s unexpected twists and turns.

You know the drill: The contestant drops a six-inch disk down the side of a flat Plinko board. The disk bounces off of a dozen or so pegs on its way down the board before landing in a slot with a value between zero and several thousand dollars.

Plinko’s beauty is in its randomness. In a national discourse where everyone — from basketball team owners to policymakers — is accused of gaming the system, Plinko stands out as a system that can’t be gamed.

That’s an apt analogy for the trials and tribulations of today’s middle and high school students as they try to determine their career aspirations.

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A 13-year-old has a wide array of career paths available, just as a Plinko disk has a wide array of outcomes down the board. But a student’s path is rarely a straight line toward the destination. One’s educational and career goals can often be jostled and driven off course.

Recent research from Gallup and Strada Education Network found that more than half of Americans who pursued higher education would change their experience if they had the chance at a do-over.

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Some estimates suggest that the majority of children entering elementary school today will go on to work in types of jobs that don’t even exist yet.

“Recent research from Gallup and Strada Education Network found that more than half of Americans who pursued higher education would change their experience if they had the chance at a do-over.”

Of course, choosing a career path isn’t exactly the same as Plinko — because we can anticipate, and address, the forces that often knock students off course.

Here are three things to keep in mind for students looking to avoid “the Plinko effect” in career choice:

Seek out a passion. Students today don’t just want a job. They want a calling — an occupation aligned with something they care about deeply.

Too often, however, students are not guided through the process of identifying their true passions. Our schools are held accountable for student performance on standardized assessments, but identifying a future career direction requires a process of self-discovery that cannot be confined to an answer sheet.

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Parents, educators and community members can facilitate this self-discovery by engaging students in conversations and learning experiences to explore their values, interests and aspirations, and by helping them to see links to potential careers.

Work experience matters. Too often, students target a particular career without having hands-on experience to help them understand what it’s really like. Hundreds of high school students attend our National Youth Leadership Forums each year to learn more about careers in fields like medicine, law, national security and engineering.

For many of them, this experience reinforces the idea that a career — say, medicine — is the right one for them. Others, however, come away with the realization that medicine is the wrong path because, for example, they can’t stand the sight of blood. Hands-on, experiential learning programs like this can serve a valuable role not just in fostering a passion, but also in steering a student toward something for which he or she might be better suited.

Make a plan. In the absence of a clear direction, many students “go with the flow” and make major decisions about their educations that don’t align with an end goal. Students who are not “beginning with the end in mind” might apply to a certain university because that is where their friends are applying — or major in something that sounds good at first, but doesn’t ultimately align with what they realize they want to do by junior year.

This lack of upfront planning has real costs — in terms of time and cost to graduate, as well as for the many students who end up in careers that don’t reflect what they truly care about. A career plan — a stated vision of what one hopes to do as an occupation — is key, even if it’s simple. And it doesn’t hurt to have students put together such plans early on — even in middle school. No plan is set in stone, after all; plans can and should be adapted as students continue their journeys of self-discovery.

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The prize for overcoming these challenges isn’t just an oversized check for excelling at Plinko — it’s the infinitely more rewarding benefit of finding a career path aligned with one’s values and passions. Parents, teachers, mentors and friends all have roles to play in helping students choose careers — and in supporting the process of discovering who they are, and who they aspire to be.

This story on career and technical education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Duncan Young is the CEO of Envision EMI, a provider of youth leadership programs based in Vienna, Virginia.

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