What controversial advice have people given to their children? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
"Follow your passion!"
This is extremely common advice to youngsters, and in my opinion, it's very poor advice. Instead, I would say, "Explore!"
The problem is that children have only been exposed to a tiny segment of the world; they don't know what's out there. When I was growing up in the Bronx, many children wished they could be either schoolteachers or medical doctors. Why? Because schoolteachers and doctors were the most educated and accomplished people they ever encountered. (In the South Bronx, where I grew up, being a "businessman" meant running the local grocery store.)
The world is huge and full of wonder, and most children have seen only their neighborhoods. I never met a scientist of any kind until I took a physics class at Columbia. I did get to see some real businessmen when I got a summer job as a messenger down in Manhattan's Financial District, but I didn't get a good sense of what they did.
A good friend of mine encouraged her daughter to follow her passion, and she did: she became a professional bicycle racer. Of course, there is little income in that unless you are one of the very best, and that means that it is extremely difficult for her to send her children to college. Likewise, I know a woman who followed her passion and became a ballerina. To earn a good living doing that you have to be in the top 100 in the country; this person now ekes out a living teaching young children to dance. That's not a bad job, but it is not what she was hoping for when she followed her passion.
I love racquetball. But it is easy to play racquetball now that I'm a professional physicist. It would not be easy to practice physics on the side if I were a professional racquetball player. I chose well.
I encourage children to get the best education they can. In college, defer picking your major for as long as possible. Explore! Take classes in a subject completely out of your field. In my senior year, I took courses in sociology and Russian literature. See what's out there. My wife Rosemary majored in math in college, graduated and became a systems engineer for IBM, and then quit her job to go back to school and became an architect. She loves that work and has no interest in ever retiring. But as a child, how could she have known that her joy would come from this obscure (in her view) career. She never even met an architect until after she graduated from college.
My daughter Elizabeth majored in math. When she was filling out the forms for graduation, she discovered that she had inadvertently fulfilled all the requirements for a major in literature That wasn't her intent--she had just been exploring. She took a job in Europe working for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, something that was neither math nor literature. Later, she became involved in a startup company in the UK. Finally, she returned to the US where we set up the non-profit Berkeley Earth to study environmental problems. Was she following her childhood passion? No. How could such a career have been conceived of by a youngster? She was exploring. She loves her work.
Exploring is an adventure. It is full of uncertainty. It is much more challenging to explore than it is to follow your passion because there is so much more uncertainty. If you feel that you must avoid all anxiety, then it is a very uncomfortable way to go. You live with doubt. It is not easy. In fact, it is full of wrong directions, and when you find yourself on a path that is not going where you want, you have to be ready to get off, as my wife did when she quit IBM to go back to school. But exploration is the only good way to learn enough about the world that you can discover the passions you never knew you had.