Wednesday, December 10, 2014

For Love or Money? Thoughts on Choosing a Major.

I recently had a student email me about a dilemma she is having with her major. She is stuck between two choices: engineering or film? 

When she talked about engineering, she only mentioned money. It would make money. This would be good, right? 

When she talked about film, she went on, and on, and on about all the things she found interesting and what she'd want to pursue.

Others in her life have doubts about the reality of this path, though. She's wondering what she should choose.

It's not a new question, but when it's facing you, it can feel brand new. Do you choose a career, or a major for that matter, based on something you love or something that will help you make money?

I lean towards love. But it depends on what you love. 

Do you love money? Do you love your family (whom you might need to support with money)? Do you love yourself? Do you love a subject, a type of work? What do you love the most? What can help you pursue at least a majority of the things you love? What are you willing to give up? What are you not willing to give up? What will inspire you to do your best work?

I can't answer that for you. I know you wouldn't want me to. Only you know you, your life, your interests, your goals, and what really matters to you. 

I do want to give you permission, though, to not be ashamed or afraid of your interests. I think you should pursue them, in whatever capacity you can. It may be a major. It may be a career path. Or it may be something outside of that (when it comes to your job, there are other forces at work - an economy, time, technology, need, etc; it doesn't mean it's not possible to make what you love your job, it just means it is smart to do your research ahead of time and think openly and creatively about how you can make that a part of your life).

I did happen to choose a major because I loved it. I had a vague idea of careers it would prepare me for, but I've always chosen paths and classes based on what I was interested in - and not for just dreamy reasons. I'm actually pretty practical too: I've always realized, at least for me, that I do better and succeed more when I'm doing something I'm interested in. I just work harder. 

It doesn't mean there aren't boring things along the way. But because I know they're on the way to something I am interested in, it makes it easier to get through. 

I'm also incredibly biased here because last night I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time. In the movie, a tragedy occurs after a student's father bans him from pursuing his interest in acting. The father is so intent on his son having opportunities he didn't have, but for him that meant his son needed to go to Harvard and be a doctor. When the son stated he wanted to pursue acting, the father took him out of his prep school and was going to send him to military school in order to ensure his son would stay on the path of wealth and prestige.

The son wasn't able to tell his father how he really felt about the path he wanted to take. Instead he channeled his emotions in tragic ways, and it was heart wrenching. 

I know this is fiction, and simplistic, but it felt heart breakingly real. And then I got this email this morning from a student caught between love and money. I had to write this blog immediately.

Choose love. 

And do it wisely. For example, be careful of schools that advertise dream careers and require a lot of tuition. Do your research. The best research involves finding and talking to alumni (LinkedIn has a great tool for this). What jobs did they get? How do they like them? How did the school or major help them? Do they have any regrets? Did they think it was worth it? What advice do they have for you? 

In So Good They Can't Ignore You one of my favorite authors and bloggers Cal Newport explains why "Follow Your Passion" is bad advice. I highly recommend this book, especially for my fellow dreamers out there.

While his book is especially geared towards people who aren't sure of their interests (which is great - not everyone has to have 'a passion'), for someone with a passion or a dream or an interest that they can't ignore Cal's book serves as a great reminder of the hard work involved in becoming really good at something. Just "following" a passion without doing the work or research is the problem. Following is blind and inactive.

Instead, research your passion and its path. Work your passion. Learn your passion. Find internships. Find mentors. Get better. Seek advice from people successfully doing what you aspire to do. Practice, practice, practice. 

Ask yourself if it does fit into a major or career. If it can - awesome! But also be open to it being something else. Can you do both? (I saw a job profile on LinkedIn yesterday that said "Engineer by day, media by night." I LOVE that!) Be open to possibilities. 

In her book, Yes Please, Amy Poehler also has some great advice on this subject: "I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they 'want to do' and start asking then what they don't want to do. Instead of asking students to 'declare their major,' we should ask students to 'list what they will do anything to avoid.'" 

I like this. I think advisors should ask this of every student before their first semester of college. A two-column list: What do you want? What do you want to avoid? How is college going to help? Why is studying for hours each week going to be worth it for you?

I've talked to countless successful community college graduates who got through it not by following a specific passion, love, or dream, but because they wanted to do everything in their power to avoid another kind of life. For one single mom it was the life of retail. For another it was a life of poverty. For me, it was a goal to avoid feeling miserable in a job.   

Don't choose a major that is going to lead you right into something you're actually desperate to avoid. Choose one that helps you avoid those things, and moves you to want to learn, grow, and excel. Choose something in line, in some way, with something you love, whatever that may be for you.

Regardless of what you choose, hard work will be required. The journey will be long. No matter what, there will be hard times. You won't always love it. But if you choose something that feels worth it to you, something that will grow you instead of crush you, you may find you have the strength to contribute something you're proud of.

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