To Be an English Major, or Not To Be an English Major
I have a part-time job doing analysis for Brigham Young University. I basically go through the heaps of survey data that BYU collects from its students and alumni and run statistics, make charts, draw insights, build reports, etc.
Every year we survey graduating seniors with a heap of questions to try to evaluate the BYU experience. I can’t share any details, but one thing that comes up is whether or not people would choose their same major if they did it all over again. Of the people that say “no”, it’s pretty typical for them to talk about how they either wish they had followed their dreams instead of choosing their safe major, or they wish they had chosen a safer, more employable major instead of following their dreams.
Is this a case of the grass always being greener on the other side? It’s easy for the English majors to look at the accountants and be like “they all have jobs! I want one too! I should have done accounting!” and for the accounting majors to look at the English majors and think “they’re able to share their thoughts and ideas with the world! I wish I had followed my dreams instead of doing something boring and safe!”
It’s easy for people that can find a job they like after getting a degree in something “softer” to be happy, just like for the people who have a genuine passion for a hard skill like engineering, but there are plenty of people who have passions for things that may not put food on the table, and there are plenty of jobs that people don’t easily get excited about.
Well, maybe we’re looking at the issue in an overly simple matter. I’m not sure that everyone will be able to optimize on all attributes, but perhaps if we break things down a bit more systematically we can better identify what things we want to study and what jobs we would be satisfied taking.
Above is a framework tree to to help think about how the major you choose will affect certain important attributes of your life. Each major will have some level of security attached to it (even English) as well as a dose of dreamyness (even Accounting). Let me explain the framework a little bit.
This attribute can be broken into two sources of security: the self-provided security, and what I call “contextually” provided security. The amount of security you need to be comfortable is up to you and should fit what makes you happy.
This kind of security is the kind you build yourself. It can include fiscal security (from the income of whatever kind of job you can get), security from skills (knowing how to do things that people will pay you for), or from your network. Security from your network could be connections you make with possible employers, investors, or even just people that you can convince to let you bum off of them.
This kind of security exists fairly independent of what you study, but will certainly influence what you think you should do in life. This security may come from welfare programs available either through the government or other social programs, or it could come from your “natural” network. If you’re in a country with strong social programs, you may be more inclined to take risks knowing that you’ll at least have enough if you fail. If your natural network of friends or family are willing to let you live in their basement or help you in other ways, you may decide you can stand greater risks on the self-provided side.
The first thing to note with the dreams section is that you job does not need to be the dream itself. Heck, I would say that your job will usually not be the dream, but will likely be a part of, or an enabler of your dreams. For instance, you may really want to hike every mountain over a certain height in the world. You might not find a “global mountain hiker” job, but you might find that you are good enough at photography to get paid to take pictures as you go, or you might find that being a dentist gives you enough money and vacation time to do what you want when you’re not working.
This is often the salvation of “boring” jobs, in that many of them give you the resources to make your non-working hours more awesome (just make sure that they give you non-working hours. I’m talking to you, I-bankers ;)).
With the framework, I’ve found that dreams are often outcome based, or activity based. Let’s go deeper.
Many people have dreams of seeing something change in themselves, or in the world. I break those into personal outcomes, and impact outcomes.
With personal outcomes, you may want to develop your character in a certain way, or make certain memories, or develop certain skills or abilities. As long as you can identify what you want here, you can evaluate whether a job will give you the chance to do that, either as part of the work, or with your free time.
With impact outcomes, changes are generally in the spectrum of being in the physical world (such as building, designing, engineering, planning, etc.) or in the social world (generally solving social problems). With impact outcomes, there’s a greater likelihood that your job will have to be more directly tied to the impact you want to see. For example, if I want to make serious progress in ending human trafficking, I may not be able to see the impact I want without going full-time in a solid organization. Everyone will have a different level of impact they want to see though, and you might be satisfied just being able to donate regularly to certain issues.
There will probably be some things that you just enjoy doing, regardless of the outcome. It could be social things like talking with people, intellectual things like solving certain problems, or kinetic things where you’re just doing a certain things (like riding horses or something).
How To Use The Framework
Unfortunately, even with a framework, you’ll still have to learn a good bit about yourself and possible life paths. What the framework does is helps you identify what information to gather, how to think about it, and be able to recognize where you’re making trade-offs.
Complications With Using the Framework
First and foremost, getting numerical values in the framework is almost certainly more work than it’s worth. To do this, you would need to find some way of weighting your preferences (e.g. thinking that fiscal security is twice as important as skills-and-abilities security, but 0.9 less important than following my character based dreams). Then, you would need to score each major brought for consideration across each dimension. From there, you could multiply the major scores by the weights, add it all up, and come up with a weighted total score. The major with the highest score would theoretically be your best bet, assuming the framework covers everything (which it doesn’t).
The second complication comes from majors that are fairly similar. You might be able to differentiate between nursing and vocal performance, but what about micro-biology and molecular biology? It may be possible, but certainly a bit tougher.
The third complication is that this framework assumes that you’re capable of doing whatever you’re evaluating. If you plan on breaking the Olympic record for most gold medals won, are you really going to be able to accomplish that? Some of that risk may be accounted for in some of the security points (such as expected fiscal security), but it’s easy to overestimate your abilities. (In an ideal world, you could calculate the probability of each point and include that in the scores. For example, if there was a 10% chance at getting a $30K salary, an 80% chance at a $40K salary, and a 10% chance at $70K salary, you could calculate the weighted average there and input a $42K salary as the base score. But who the heck knows this kind of stuff ahead of time?)
Benefits With Using the Framework
First, this gives you a more holistic measuring tool when thinking about different majors. People frequently go with a quick gut reaction to do their initial screening (“statistics sounds boring, so no!”) and then go a bit deeper into the major (“this major’s first class was good, so yes!”), and then make a final decision when it’s too late to really know what’s going on (“I have too many credits in this, so I have to finish” OR “after nearly finishing, I found out I didn’t like it, so I switched. Hopefully I like this next one because it’ll be too late to change again!”). By knowing ahead of time what things are important to consider, you can hopefully avoid some pitfalls and make decisions based on your entire life rather than just the job.
This framework also helps you recognize where you’re making trade-offs. Before, you might choose dance over accounting because you thought accounting sounds boring, but now you can recognize more easily what kind of security you might be giving up. It might even make you decide that accounting fulfills your security needs while providing enough flexibility to dance like you want to anyway (it probably doesn’t, that’s just an example).
The final benefit is that it can help you expand your vision from relying entirely on your job to get satisfaction. Hopefully as you go through thinking about your dreams you can recognize that you have dreams beyond work. You might want to be an awesome Dad, or go rock climbing a lot, or help other in their careers, or volunteer at hospitals. You probably can’t fulfill all of your dreams at work, but if you plan it right, you might be able to choose a career path that will let you catch a bunch of them.
Once You’ve Decided
After you’ve decided on a major, I would suggest that you don’t stop thinking. Taking a flexible approach to life can really help as you find opportunities that you didn’t anticipate, but that could bring greater fulfillment than your current path.
You can also use this sort of framework for other decisions. This could include career moves, promotions, when to ease-off from work, when to retire, what to save for, etc. There’s plenty of stuff going on in life, so keep seeking to add the most value you can.
Keep seeking truth.