Sometime in the midst of my 8th year of life on this earth, my constant “polite” nudges and hints must have cracked something in my mother’s brain – for she finally bought me my very first copy of Pokémon Blue.
That morning, sitting on a lawn chair in my driveway and “keeping an eye on” my parents’ garage sale, I was presented with the momentous choice many of us have had to make:
This was 1999; the only computer in the house ran Windows 95 and was there mainly so my dad could play Descent, which scared the crap out of my brother and me. I had never been on the internet, and therefore, had no idea what my choice would bring me.
Charmander, Squirtle, or Bulbasaur?
I ended up picking Charmander because flames are cool, and promptly got my face stomped in when I faced Brock for the first time.
If you’re going to college soon, you’re now facing a similar choice – except that instead of choosing a violent-yet-cuddly monster stuffed into a sphere with a belt clip, you’re trying to choose your college major.
Last I checked, my alma mater offered over 100 majors. Imagine walking into Professor Oak’s office and seeing 2/3 of the game’s Pokémon on the table, waiting for you to choose.
“I choose… Magikarp,” Ash said, sunglasses smoothly falling onto his face from nowhere.
With so many options, choosing your major is hard. There are a ton of factors involved, and you’ve got a nice dollop of uncertainty heaped on top to make things even more fun.
I’ll go over a process for making your major choice easier in the near future; today, however, I want to focus on dumb mistakes college students make when trying to choose.
Learn to avoid these mistakes, and you’re much more likely to end up satisfied with where the major you choose takes you.
1. Choosing for Income
My friend Adam Carroll once said something that makes a lot of sense to me:
“College is a business decision.” | Tweet This
You go to college primarily so you can learn a useful skillset and obtain a degree – two things that will open up new career opportunities for you and increase your earning potential.
Since college costs a lot of money, it’s very useful to frame it as a business decision as Adam says; you’re essential trading your money, time, and ~4 years’ potential full-time work earnings in exchange for a better career opportunity in the future.
I think this is a very good mindset to take when you’re evaluating the potential cost of your education (going to a cheaper university vs. a more expensive one, for example) – however, I think it would be a pretty poor decision to use this mindset as your sole tool for deciding on a major.
Last time I checked, money doesn’t buy happiness. I believe – and research shows – that a lack of money can certainly make you unhappy, but past a certain point money won’t really make you happier.
The world isn’t just about money, so your choice of major shouldn’t be about it either. I urge you to consider majoring in something marketable (or making damn sure to make yourself marketable outside of class), but realize that your career will consume 40 hours of your time every week once you start working.
Don’t let those 40 hours be dedicated to something you’re doing solely for money. Find something you can be interested in as well.
2. Letting Authority Figures Influence You Too Much
While doing research for this article, I asked my girlfriend Anna if she had any advice on choosing a major. She had some great things to say, but one story she told me really stood out:
“I told a student teacher in high school that I wanted to major in Graphic Design, and she said, ‘Oh, that program’s supposed to be really hard. I don’t know if you should bother trying.'”
That student teacher was right about one thing: the Graphic Design program at our school is challenging. But does that give her any right to discourage a student from pursuing it?
Anna – now a senior in Graphic Design and doing just fine, thank you – would tend to say no. So would I.
Authority figures see you as what you are: a greenhorn along a path fraught with potential mishaps and forks that lead off to less appealing (in their minds) outcomes. And so they will try to give you all sorts of advice as to what you should do. They’ll tell you to:
- Major in something that’s “marketable”
- Stay away from majors that are “soft”
- Go with something less risky
- “Do what your dad did, then come back and take over the family business!”
- “Major in Accounting; your Uncle Bobby’s former roommate got a job in that, so it must be a good major.”
Now, of the limited things I know about life, here are two: You can learn from anyone, and experience is a good teacher. So I think it is a good idea to take what authority figures tell you into consideration.
And maybe that last line will keep angry mothers from complaining that their children are shirking their advice for that of some random internet blogger who dresses like Batman…
However, you are your own person. There’s a great line from The Well of Ascension, the second book in the 2,300-page Mistborn trilogy I just trucked through:
“A king should be strong,” Tindwyl said firmly. “He accepts counsel, but only when he asks for it. He makes clear that the final decision is his, not his counselors’.”
Your parents, teachers, counselors… they all chose their paths. Along the way, there were any number of opportunities they missed, technologies and programs that didn’t exist yet, effort they didn’t choose to put in.
If you want to do something, don’t let anyone’s counsel pull you away from it too quickly. Consider their words, do your research, and make your own decision.
One thing to consider, however (and thanks to my friend Michael for pointing this out):
“I would also caution people not to shy away from the advice on authority figures just to show individuality. In retrospect, it seems like people understood me and my interests a lot more than I gave them credit for.“
3. Trying to “Find Your Passion”
“Find your passion” is terrible advice. Unfortunately, people will throw it at you from every direction.
We have a compulsion to rebel against the paths of previous generations – paths that focus on hard work and job stability – in search of “fulfilling careers” that are full of interesting duties, zero boredom, perfect work schedules, stimulating conversation… in short, 100% all-the-time fun.
The “follow your passion” crowd really likes to run with that old quote from Confucius:
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
Here’s the problem: You really can’t just “choose a job you love.” Why?
You don’t have enough experience!
Mark Cuban’s thoughts on this subject really resonate with me:
“Let me make this as clear as possible: 1) When you work hard at something you become good at it. 2) When you become good at something you enjoy doing it more. 3) When you enjoy doing something, there is a good chance you will become passionate about it.”
See the difference here? It’s about hard work first. You have to slog through the boring shit before you gain enough skill to even begin to realize whether or not a certain line of work could be your “passion”.
It isn’t something you can just choose right away. If you have an interest but don’t yet feel it’s your “passion”, stick with it anyway. Work hard, get better, and see how things turn out.
4. Failing to Do Your Due Diligence
When it comes to investing, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read is this:
“Know what you own, and know why you own it.” – Peter Lynch | Tweet This
What is your college education if not an investment?
You’re investing years of your time and a lot of money to go to college; you should at least have some inkling of what you’re getting yourself into when you choose your major. That means:
- Researching potential career opportunities in that major
- Making sure you know all the classes you’ll have to take
- Talking to people who have gone before you and getting their experiences
I talked to another student during my freshman year who said he was majoring in math, because:
“It just seems really interesting to me.”
I asked him if he’d been really into math in high school. “Nope.” I asked him if he knew what he might like to do with that major. “Not really.”
This really isn’t the mindset you should have when making a huge investment.
I can head to the library and teach myself calculus for free. I can sit in a cafe for an entire afternoon slogging through a dense, 10,000-word article on Bayes’ Theorem (which I have done) without paying a cent.
My interests can be satiated without a huge monetary investment on my part. Information is cheap and plentiful. If you don’t know where to go to learn something for free or almost free, ask me and I’ll find you a resource.
When it comes to a huge investment of your money and time, make sure you know:
- What you’re getting into and where it could potentially lead
- How it relates to your goals
Maybe you can’t divine all the answers right now. You probably can’t. Still, there is immense value in simply asking the right questions now and trying to figure out the answers, rather than just jumping into something on a whim.
“Don’t let a whim put you in debt.” | Tweet This
5. Not Getting Experience ASAP
If there’s one thing that my actual program of study taught me, it is this:
“What you do in the classroom is usually a very poor indicator of what an actual career in your major will be like.” | Tweet This
It’s very difficult to gauge what you’ll actually do, day-to-day, from your experiences in the classroom. Academics simply aren’t like the real world.
When I did my internship after my sophomore year, I didn’t really enjoy it. Working for a big corporation, being in a cubicle, changing network settings on a laptop all day – it definitely wasn’t for me.
However, I’m very glad I did it – because I then had two years of college left with which to pivot (something Jenny Blake would be proud of).
While I didn’t change my major, I did make sure to work even harder to gain new experience in other areas. I also put more effort into this blog, which eventually became my career.
Had I not done the internship early on, I might have graduated without knowing that I wouldn’t enjoy my career path.
That’s why I think it’s imperative to get experience as soon as you can. Get a relevant part-time job, find an internship ASAP, or do a job shadow – however you do it, seek to get a taste of your major’s day-to-day work as early as possible.
6. Following Your Friends
Here’s a terrible, gut-wrenching secret about you and your friends:
You are different.
You have different interests, different levels of drive and motivation, and different relationship networks. As time goes on – and especially in the opportunity-rich environment of college – these differences will only become more pronounced.
This means that you will eventually drift away from some of your friends. Others you might stay connected with for a long, long time. Inevitably, though, you’re going to make new ones.
Regardless, your friends’ decision to major in something shouldn’t have any effect on you. Having friends to sit next to in class is nice, but you need to be your own person, deliberately evaluate your values and interests, and make your own decision based on them.
Allow yourself to pursue your own interests, even if it forces you outside of your comfort zone. Even if it means you’ll have to meet new people. Trust me – it will be worth it.
7. Focusing Too Much on Sunk Costs
A sunk cost is a cost that’s already been incurred in the past and cannot be recovered. In the words of Lady Macbeth:
“What’s done is done.”
Typically, we think of sunk costs in terms of dolla dolla bills, ya’ll – but you can apply this concept to any cost – time, effort, emotional expenditures, whatever.
Sunk costs often come into play 1-3 years after a student has chosen a major – and decides they now might want to switch. Now, a rational decision maker would take only one type of cost into consideration when making the choice to switch or not, and that is the prospective cost.
That is, they’d assess their decision solely on its own merits. Will switching my major get me closer to my goals? Will it make me happier? Do I have the resources to commit, or will the added burden be too much?
Unfortunately, human beings are not always rational decision makers. For one, we are irrationally loss-averse. This often causes use to fall victim to the sunk-cost fallacy: The decision to invest additional resources into a losing investment when there are better prospects available.
As Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow:
“The sunk-cost fallacy keeps people for too long in poor jobs, unhappy marriages, and unpromising research projects.”
It’s hard for us to simply abandon progress we’ve already made, even when doing so would be advantageous. I know this personally, and Thinking, Fast and Slow is a perfect example: While the book is fascinating, I found it incredibly slow and difficult reading. Trying to read straight through was taking up too much time, keeping me from other books I could have digested more easily.
Unfortunately, it took me far too long to “give up” on the book and shelve it for another time.
Once I finally did, though, I immediately saw the benefit. I was able to finish books I had more interest in, while still coming back to Kahneman to research specific topics.
Giving up can be useful; as Cal Newport says in How to Win at College:
“Giving up is a tactical skill, not a weakness.” | Tweet This
College isn’t Galaxy Quest, and giving up doesn’t mean throwing in the towel, becoming a failure, and watching All in the Family reruns in your sweatpants for the rest of your life. It means turning your attention to a more promising opportunity.
If you find your past progress in your major – or indeed, experiences from high school – influencing your decision to choose/switch, remember to try and evaluate that past progress only for how it relates to your future.
8. Double Majoring Without a Good Reason
Want to double major? That’s cool – but do it for the right reasons.
If you believe two majors will be complimentary, or will help you achieve a specific goal, then the extra effort involved in completing them can be worth it.
Too often, though, students heap on extra majors simply because they think it’ll be “more impressive” on a resume. These extra academic credentials have an opportunity cost, however; they take up more of your time.
Asian Efficiency, one of my favorite blogs on productivity, has a powerful reminder in the header on every page:
“You are given 24 drops of time every day.” | Tweet This
Taking on two majors means heaping on a significant amount of extra class time – and homework – onto your daily schedule.
Worse yet, this is time you could spend doing things that would be even more impressive to a potential employer:
- Gaining work experience
- Building your social skills
- Making connections
I love learning, and I still spend a significant part of every day doing it on my own even though I’m not longer in college. Still I recognize the importance of doing – and of identifying the activities that are likely to help me achieve my goals in the least amount of time.
Don’t make the mistake of heaping a ton of extra academic work on yourself without a good reason.
“College majors are not Xbox achievements or Pokemon. You do not have to collect them all.” | Tweet This
Instead, deliberately define your goals. Be mindful of your path, and do what will get you closer to achieving those goals.
9. Waiting Too Long to Choose
If you’re going to college as an “undecided” student, I urge you to seek out as much experience as you can gain right away.
As I said earlier, it’s difficult to gauge what an actual major will end up being like without gaining experience. If you’re at the point where you can’t even decide on a major, this is doubly true, as you’re basically only toe-ing the waters of any given major at this point.
Remember, college is an investment.
For every semester you spend in college, you’re investing time and money. This isn’t to say that you should view college strictly in a business sense, doing nothing but work and having zero fun – however, you need to prioritize your search for a path you can commit to.
I think the whole “undecided” thing is often a symptom of too much “follow your passion” advice. Explore for a while, expose yourself to lots of different interests, but be aware that you’re unlikely to be hit by a bolt of lightning inspiration that reveals your passion to you right away. It’s going to take work.
The longer you hold off on choosing, the longer it’ll be before you can do that work – get past that initial slog – and start building up the interest and enjoyment that comes from skill.
10. Choosing Based on a Romanticized Image
One of my best friends spent his first 5 semesters trying – unsuccessfully – to major in computer engineering. Now, if you see a person doing this major, what would you expect to see them doing in their free time? I’d guess:
- Building their own computers
- Tweaking the CPU and overclocking
- Making their own websites
- Programming for fun
- Experimenting with lots of new software
…but this friend of mine wasn’t doing any of that. So, eventually, I asked him bluntly:
“Do you actually want to get your hands dirty and do computer engineering, or are you just wanting to be like all the cool hackers in movies like The Matrix?”
Hesitantly, he replied: *Sigh* “The second one…”
Don’t choose your major based solely on a romanticized image.
You will not be Tank from The Matrix if you major in computer engineering. The world is not currently under attack from killer robots, and you don’t have a crazy ship or a crack team of gun-toting martial artists.
You will not be James Cameron – taking a submarine down into the Mariana Trench – if you major in Marine Biology. You’ll probably be studying seaweed.
You will not be House if you decide to become a pre-med. The first time you talk to your boss like an asshole, you’ll just get fired.
Look, it’s totally cool to get inspired by what you see in your favorite movies, books, and games. However, you need to realize the real world isn’t like what you see on TV. You aren’t going to be a movie character.
More importantly, life is not a snapshot. You only see Tank hacking on his computer console for probably 10 minutes total throughout all three Matrix movies. If you become a programmer, you’ll be doing it for 40 hours a week.
Part of successfully reaching a destination – or achieving a goal – is having a clear path to follow. However, it’s just as important to avoid potential pitfalls along the way.
Hopefully this post has pointed out some of those potential pitfalls to you. Soon, I’ll go over some advice you can use to actually help decide on a major.
For now, let me know if you think I missed any mistakes students make when choosing.