• Dr. Thom

Choosing a Major Versus Creating Your Path

I am fascinated by walkways. Have you ever been walking in a park and seen this?



A paved path, right next to a well-worn footpath. The park designer instructs the people to go one way, and the people then go and decide for themselves how to get to where they are going. These shortcuts are often called "desire paths" and they can offer wonderful insights into human behavior and the nature of choice.


Rem Koolhaas is a Pritzker Prize Winning architectural icon with legendary building credits to his name: the Seattle Public Library, CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, and perhaps my favorite, the McCormick Tribune Campus Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Illinois. The building is not only a literal shining example of what is possible in modern design and architecture, but the story of its creation it is a metaphor for living a life with clear-eyed purpose.


Often, campus architecture exists in a kind of aesthetic bubble. You can see it on so many campuses as over time each building is created in its own stylistic lane, drawing more inspiration from the architect and his or her influences rather than from the surrounding campus. As you walk around many campuses you see an odd hodge podge of architectural styles: a little of this, and a little of that.


In the building of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center though, Koolhaas wanted the center of campus to fit into the natural environment that was already there. For two days in 1997, Koolhaas used a team of students to track movement across the campus through the project site (what was a parking lot at the time). They came up with a web of heavily traveled paths, called "desire lines," which Koolhaas turned into walkways through the building that divide it into a “series of islands,” each with its own function and visual character.


A 1999 Google Earth image (right) of the parking lot that would become the McCormick Tribune Campus Center (left).

So instead of dictating to students where they should go, Koolhaas, a world-class architect, sought to understand the natural progression of students across the IIT campus, and build around that. While many campus planners find ways to discourage what has often been called the "collective disobedience" that creates these desire paths, others, embrace it.


Nothing to see here . . .

Imagine if you were an architect charged with developing the flow of visitors through a public park. You too would be faced with a choice in terms of how to place your walking trails. You could pour over your designs, thinking, interviewing people, trying to get into the mind of a park visitor. You could do focus groups and ask people where they would want the paths. You could then make the plan, dig and pour the paths.


The other way would be to create paths only to the edge of a large green and let the footprints of your visitors tell me where to put your pathways.


While you may never be asked to design a park, you are most certainly responsible for designing your life, including picking an academic major in college. Just like the concrete walkways, college planners also design ways to navigate the academic landscape of college by creating majors, minors, not to mention experiential learning opportunities like study abroad, internships, and co-ops. But just like those physical walkways, some colleges embrace, understand, and encourage desire paths that don't fit neatly into some pre-designed model or program, including many that encourage students to design their own major.


One of the most difficult mindset shifts we work on with our students is to help them evolve from "which major do I want" to "what do I want to learn how to do?" The former relies on the set of options being presented to the student, like picking from a menu, while the latter sets the student free to develop their own unique path to a meaningful and purposeful life and career. So many students we talk with are truly terrified about picking their major. It feels so high wire to them, as if the world is riding on selecting the right option: future success, income, not to mention the implicit approval of mom and dad.


But the truth is that this approach to life design is flawed, because it assumes that the paths designed to get a student from here to their future are universal and correct. In fact, it is simply a path. It is one way to get from point A to point B. There are always other options. When we teach our young people to identify their own paths and have the courage to walk them, even if it is not paved, they learn a powerful life lesson that cannot be unlearned: that designing your life is an active and perpetual choice.


They must continually be scanning their surroundings and choosing for themselves where they want to go. Without this skill, young people will fall into the auto-pilot mode in which so many of our society's most unhappy citizens are stuck. They simply bump along from choice to choice doing what is expected of them, only to look up in their 40s and realize they are living someone else's dream, completely devoid of passion and energy for their own lives.


A simple exercise you can do to help your child Identify the "desire paths" in their own lives is to look at the things they are doing now that feel natural and easy. Are there subjects or topics that the student finds endlessly fascinating? Are there activities that the student rarely or never has to be convinced or cajoled into doing? Are there things in their lives that they enjoy so much that they cannot imagine living without them? These are the elements of the "desire paths" they are already walking. Designing a life of meaning and purpose relies on understanding these paths, and insisting on walking them, even if that walkway is not paved and easy.


Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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