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Major Stress: How to help your child pick a major without the anxiety

Updated: Jan 17, 2020

In the state of Tennessee, where we live, 8th grade students are ushered through a brief advising session in the spring prior to starting high school to select their courses. A part of this process involves selecting a “pathway,” a series of elective courses intended to prepare students for various career fields, like medicine, information technology, agriculture, or auto repair. It is at this point that I would like to remind you that typically an 8th grade student is somewhere in the age neighborhood of 13 or 14 years old. What were you like when you were 13?

We meet a lot of young people who are very concerned about selecting a major. Nationally, 49% of high school juniors said that choosing a major was a significant source of anxiety in their college search.

Paula Poundstone famously quipped that “Adults are always asking kids what they want to be when they grow up because they are looking for ideas.” Maybe that’s why juniors and seniors in high school get asked “What do you want to major in?” so incessantly. With 85% of adults reporting that they can’t stand their current employment, there may be a hard to swallow truth to this.

From an organizational and societal structure point of view though, we have been trying to sort and steer our nation’s youth into “careers” ever since the industrial revolution. In her book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux, Cathy Davidson describes the shifting structure of the American university from a unified philosophical canon curated by “masters” and facilitated one-by-one by residential tutors to a model designed to identify and credential students.

This more industrial style of education was not by accident, as it sought to identify perceived innate talent for, and to channel into, an increasingly specialized workforce, drawn from the needs of a burgeoning and highly stratified commercial market. A departmental major, with its standardized curriculum, timed exams, accrediting agencies, rankings, universal accounting of credit hours, FTE, and transcripts all trace their roots to management theories of 1870-1920 and were optimization staples in factories of the era to churn out Model T’s and steel beams.

This assembly line approach to career preparation is starting to show significant signs of systematic failure. In their book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, authors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans note that only 27% of college graduates are working in their designated major. We ask young people to identify a passion when in fact less than 20% of people have one identifiable single passion. In an age where learning any skill (and I do mean any) has never been easier through the great information superconductor of the internet, and where the half-life of modern techniques seem to be more like “quarter-lives,” the methods we are passing along to our young people to figure out who they want to become are insufficient.

So what’s a better way? Let’s try this:

Focus on “how-to’s” of interest rather than majors: The problem with starting with a list of majors or career “pathways” is that it can lead to a foreclosed understanding of the real variety of life’s work that is actually available. A student looks at the list of majors at a college of choice and starts to think that this is the universe of choices. This is far from the truth.

Instead, let’s start with something more universal and simple: what do you want to learn how to do over the next 2-3 years? Do you want to learn how to speak a foreign language fluently and have a full conversation with a native speaker? Do you want to learn how to conduct research in a team-setting and present your findings to a panel of experts? Do you want to learn how to start a successful business? Do you want to learn how to ask thoughtful questions to powerful thought leaders in an interview setting? Or simply, I want to be able to learn how to cook a gourmet meal for four of my closest friends. These skills are the foundations of dreams and aspirations that often involve learning from multiple disciplines.

Start here and then find the majors on the surface that best fit them. Take a look at the coursework required within that major and look for overlaps with the desired skills. Take one of the examples mentioned above: learning to ask better questions in an interview format. This is a foundational skill needed of all of the best media and leadership professionals and there are hundreds of courses that can teach you, like the “Interviewing Principles” course offered by Columbia University does.

Mastering the multi-step process of identifying skills that an individual wishes to learn, scanning their environment to identify and evaluate the various means of attaining that skill, and showing the discipline needed to finish job, is crucial for growth. The learning environment is wide, and consists of many teachers, only a handful of which are based at the university of choice. Online content, internships, study abroad, hands-on experiential projects, cultural excursions, mentorships, and yes, in-person coursework, all combine to teach the learner the desired skill. This is what it means to be a self-learner in this brave new information economy. The days in which selecting the major and then sitting back and being filled like a vessel are long-gone.

It all starts with a simple question though: what do you want to learn how to do?

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