Look! I Can See Your Breadth!

An excerpt from Carpe College!

“Passions are the gales of life.”

– Alexander Pope


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Talk about pressure!  You young people have been harangued and harassed without end about solidifying your future, locking something in, having a plan.  Yet, ironically, you have grown up in a time when options are more vast and unpredictable than ever before, and you are (arguably) less prepared to make such choices than ever before.

The Terrain.  Think on this….   When you were born, just under two decades ago, there was no Facebook or Google or YouTube or Twitter or iPhone or drone aircraft or flat TVs or hybrid cars.  There were CDs, but how quickly they came and went!  That’s the point – quickly.  With technological advances, particularly in the way information is shared and the pace at which it is shared, new ideas and developments are emerging exponentially.  And, on the heels of that, new career paths follow.  You’ve been told that your generation will probably switch jobs (and careers) far more frequently than previous generations, and your choices are more varied than ever.  On the other hand, you’ve had cursory career exploration assessments (of the standard, #2 pencil variety) since middle school, and you’ve had helicopter parents as recently as… well…maybe this morning. (Or my new favorite, “Curling Parents,” who go on ahead of the child and sweep away any of the bad stuff to allow for a smooth ride.)  Most of your ‘exploration’ has consisted of organized, orchestrated, and adult-officiated activities, leaving scant opportunity for you to truly explore whether you like the science lab more than the music studio or the soccer field.

Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

So, this is the zeitgeist (look it up).  This is the landscape.  Parents (and others) telling you to make up your mind, buckle down, and lock into a major that will garner you the most practical path to a career, but not enough experience to make a truly informed choice.  You’re not alone.  Previous generations had similar decisions at your age.  However, they’ve never had the variety of choices to complicate those decisions.  Moreover, most honest educators will share our dirty little secret:  We have very little idea about what careers will look like in the next couple of decades.  Sure, we’ll need doctors.  Sure, computers will be involved.   Sure, we’ll always need accountants.  (Prostitution?  Sadly, there’s one that seems to have some staying power.)  But with the likes of Facebook and YouTube listed above, we’ve seen a landscape that can be altered significantly in a very short period.  Consider how quickly ‘mobile apps’ emerged and how young people are building entire professional lives creating and marketing them.  Consider the push for sustainability and LEED certification of new buildings and the career paths that has spawned.  On the other hand, when was the last time you met a tobacco farmer or a travel agent or newspaper person or music label who hasn’t had the rug pulled out from under them because… well…times change?

Stealing a Strategy from Scouting.  This ‘rug pulling’ will probably continue at a quicker and more expanded clip in generations to come simply because changing technologies change what we need our humans to do and how they do it.  Just think about what wonderful opportunities emerged from the invention of the printing press.  How about the automobile?  So, now we have the Internet.  And, in your lifetime, we’ll probably have something akin to vacations in space.  Talk about cracking open the opportunities!

So, what does that mean for a young person embarking on a college career and a professional life?  It means it’s time to steal from the Boy Scouts again:  Be Prepared!images

I encourage students to take a look at a landscape where change – often, rapid change – can upend careers, and to follow this advice:  Take a deep ‘BREADTH’.  Yes, it’s a clever play on words to suggest that the more curiosity, interest and ability you have spread across differing domains, the better able you will be to land upright if you get bounced around.  The more breadth of interest and experience you have, the less bouncy a career adjustment will feel.  If you’ve prepared for a career, but technological advances make that career irrelevant, you will need to be able to find something new.  So, be prepared by keeping all your passions and hobbies bubbling forth.  That is, even though you may have chosen environmental engineering as your career path, it’s okay and wise to stay involved with your theater group.  Even though you want to be a math teacher, it’s okay and wise to keep writing songs and playing guitar.  Even though you want to be a financial analyst, it’s okay and wise to keep making short films on the weekends.  Don’t get so locked into your major that you leave behind other aspects of your life.

You just never know when a rug might get pulled or a path might get altered and, five or ten or twenty years down the road, those passions might meld into your next career.  Maybe you’ll leave engineering to write plays about the environment.  Maybe you’ll be a great math teacher singing engaging songs you wrote to teach your students math.  Maybe you’ll make financial advice videos, get discovered, and become the next big online expert.  Maybe you’ll be like Steve Jobs, who took an entirely impractical calligraphy course in college only to have it pay off immensely ten years later as he developed the first Macintosh computer.

Harvard’s guru on happiness, Daniel Gilbert, suggests that we humans have a terrible track record for predicting what might make us happy.   Much of finding our bliss will be done through trial and error.  That means we need to keep trying lots of different stuff:  majors, and careers, and hobbies and interests.  Since no one knows what the future holds, doesn’t it make sense, now more than ever, to have many irons in the fire, many lines in the water, many passions bubbling forth?

Better safe than sorry.  Plan ahead.  Be prepared.


NOTE:  This would also be the best place to advise against following the political pendulum swings or pressures to chase money by choosing a ‘practical’ major over the liberal arts.  The pressures to go to college to ‘be employable’ are greater now than ever before.  However, the reasoning behind this tactic is quite murky, and I encourage you to research the wonderful online discussions and debates that are emerging on this topic (and the long-term value of a liberal arts degree).  You might also be interested in checking out what the Fortune 500 CEOs think about what matters for their incoming employees.  Or, you might want to check out what majors those highly successful CEOs chose.  Then talk to your folks and discuss amongst yourselves.  I have a personal bias towards the liberal arts for fostering critical thought, reasoned arguments, cogent communications (especially writing), and the ability to synthesize myriad perspectives into a broader, more connected whole.  So, why not go for that liberal arts major, and minor in something ‘practical’.  Or, do a double major, for goodness sake!  Carpe College!


EXTRA EXERCISE:  Why not check in on some adults close to you?  Pick any 10 adult family members or acquaintances, ask them these questions, and prepare to be enlightened.

1). What was your college major?

2). Why did you choose it?

3). Do you use it in your current profession, and to what extent?

4). What do you think would be a great double-major? Why?

5). If you could do college all over again, what if anything would you do differently?

6). Are you happy with your college experience and professional life overall?