A friend and I have long debated the purpose of college. I’ve always believed in the universal value of a liberal arts degree. I prefer the idea of a classical education that helps us understand humanity and teaches us how to think.
My friend, on the other hand, attended college with the purpose of getting a practical degree that she knew would make her marketable immediately upon graduation for a job. She became an engineer and ha
s been steadily employed since even before she graduated.
Given that college is so expensive, it makes a lot of sense to choose a major and field of study based on its ability to set you up for employment later. But …
I spent most of December working with a group of talented, experienced engineers who had been laid off. Because of their exceptional skills, depth of knowledge, and loyalty to the company, they had become expensive and highly specialized.
Their engineering degrees did not insulate them from a company having a bad year and deciding to discontinue a product line. I’m not arguing that they would have been better off with an English degree, but rather, I’m pointing out that much of what life delivers is out of our hands. It made me start thinking about the relevance of choosing a major.
Experts tell us that technology is moving so fast that we don’t know what jobs will exist 10 years from now, so aren’t we kind of shooting in the dark?
How should we advise college students?
I had the opportunity to pose this question to my brother-in-law over dinner the other night. His major was English and now he’s … an investment banker.
Like, how was his major relevant?
He told me.
“I use that degree every day in my work. It taught me how to think. At Princeton I had to read 5+ books a week and write somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-40 pages worth of papers. That honed my ability to quickly analyze and synthesize information and spit out something coherent and concise. That’s basically what I do every day: I learn about these different biotechnologies, what companies might be interested in their work and connect the dots between the two.”
I suspect it also helps to know the players and the best way to build relationships with them, which is kind of like understanding the motivations of the main characters in a novel, right?
I was curious why he chose English as his major and how he decided.
“I wish I could say I chose it because I understood how important it would be for me to be able to communicate clearly and succinctly. But that’s not why I chose it. I chose it because I like to read books. And I love to learn. It turns out, it was a great decision, I just didn’t know it at the time.”
And that, I believe, is the best advice we can give college kids. Or any kids. Most of the time, we don’t have all the information we’d like to have in order to make a decision.
As much as we want to believe that our decisions are rational, I believe the best decisions usually come from trusting our gut. Sometimes, that’s all we have to go on.
I believe their major isn’t nearly as important as their ability to trust themselves to figure out whatever life throws at them.
The truth is, we can make all the predictions we want, but the thing that will always work in our favor is figuring out what we love, what we’re good at and what we’re interested in — and following it.
Chances are, once they understand what they’re really good at, they can translate it into a variety of industries depending on what their interests are. And, no matter how good they are at something, they will need to keep learning. We’re never “done.”
Which reminds me…I was talking to a client the other day who said that archeologists need help in Greenland.
Because the polar ice caps are melting, many artifacts from the days of the Vikings are washing up on beaches and the archeologists need people to collect and catalogue the artifacts.
Ten years ago, no one was predicting this would be a job someone could have. We can’t predict the future, but we sure can know ourselves and find ways to adapt in a way that works for us.
What was your major? How does it relate to what you’re doing now? What advice would you give college students trying to decide on a major?