Why Your College Major Matters

It’s the end of August, colleges are open for Fall semester…and cue the onset of those fear-based, tedious articles proclaiming the best majors to select if you want to be successful. Ugh. Full disclosure: I was a history major. *Waits patiently for the reader to stop snorting with laughter.* And did I mention that with said history major, I also had a play on off-Broadway when I was 18, a successful career in international network news, and in 2008, I launched this coaching practice. #dontmindme #humility

 Now, obviously, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, when I decided to major in history, I had no plan that any of that would happen. In fact, let’s be real: I had no plan whatsoever. My plan, as it were, could have been perfectly summed up by Homer Simpson, “I was told there’d be no math.” I had to declare a major, I loved reading history, guess I’ll be a history major! Now, what’s for lunch? 

Trust me, if I had the ability to go back in time and confront younger Carlota…well, certainly I’d enjoy getting that b*tch in a head-lock, and forcefully explaining to Miss Thing why this time around, she was going to avoid certain men life lessons.. but as far as regrets go, my choice of major ain’t one of them. In fact, that history degree is framed on my office wall, which seems appropriate since, to a very large degree, it’s the lessons of my herstory* that allowed me to live this life I enjoy today.  (*Ha!)

By lessons, I don’t simply mean that studying history honed my writing and research skills to a fine point; skills that as an entrepreneur, I use every single day. Those are important, of course, but really, in choosing history, I choose to commit to what interested me, and made me happy. I choose to commit to my hopes, and reject my fears. 

It was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to my belief that the things that interested me, were worthy of my time, and would lead me to the creation of a life and career that would use the best of my talents. My interest in history, led me to study Russian, which led me to spend my junior year of college in Russia, where I fell into a job in network news, which sparked a wonderful career.

 And that’s why I despise most “think” pieces advising students to pick “safe” majors, “guaranteed” to make them rich. Safety is a myth, and the only guarantees you’ll get are those you’re willing to create. When I was in my 20s in network news, I made bank. We all know that history doesn’t lead to bank...but courage does. #boom

Those corny, fearful, just plain bad articles about choosing a major that will put you on the path to success adhere to a false presumption that there is one safe path. 

 Maybe for some people, sure I guess. For the majority of us, I’d argue that, life is a strange and winding road. Something that interests you at 18, may seem tedious beyond belief by 23, never mind 33. For most of us, success is a deeply personal experience, requiring risk, confidence, failure and self-knowledge. Success takes time. The journey towards creating your own success is frequently boring as shit, interspersed with stunning transformative moments. Success is a very weird journey.

 And that’s the key: if you’re reading this at home, or, more likely, on the toilet, thinking about majoring in Chinese pottery or French poetry, or whatever, but your family and friends are giggling, implying that besides working the take-out section of a Paris McDonalds, that French ain’t exactly gonna benefit you, and why can’t you just be pre-law since clearly that’s a safe bet, the world will always need lawyers, and you can make a lot of money, and honey we’re just worried!  Well, that’s a lot of pressure. Do you go against your parents and friends? Young people, despite what the media implies, are only human. And so you decide that um, okay, sure, and you switch your major to pre-law and what’s the sound you hear? Oh, just the sound of your confidence being flushed down the toilet.

 But that confidence is crucial to your success. Confidence is what allows you to write books, or apply for exciting jobs, or travel to Beijing, where you start a small business and fall in love. Confidence is your passport to all of these endeavors. Why’d I get that first job in Moscow, in TV news? Not because I had any TV experience, but―true story―because I was there. Why was I living in Moscow? Confidence.  

Your confidence in yourself is your number one tool in crafting a life that makes sense to you…otherwise known, as a successful life. If you’re already giving up on the things that make you feel alive…how exactly is that going to work out? You think working at what you love is scary? *Laughs bitterly.* It is, but try working at something that other people imply you should love...but you don’t. When you’re curled up under your desk, sobbing, when HR is again, for the third time this week, calling you in for a meeting because your very public nervous breakdown is making your team miss deadlines...yeah, tell me how that security is working out. 

 And we haven’t even talked about passion yet. Oh, that over-hyped buzzword, favorite of earnest NPR hosts and life coaches: passion.

Find your passion, we tell our young people, non-stop, chanting it mindlessly, like it’s the Lord’s Prayer, or a sexual safe word; find your passion, and presto, all will be well!  And yet, when our impressionable young people actually do the scary work of discovering that passion, and are excited, we respond, “Art history? What’s wrong with you! You’ll never get a job! You’ll ruin your life!”

 Invariably said by some self-righteous schmuck, who spends his waking hours daydreaming in a cubicle, and his lunch time gorging on cocaine.  Ever met anyone who gave up on their passion? Of course you have: they’re the ones yelling at you, humiliating you, cyber-bullying you, making your life miserable. They’re the ones filling the world-shaped hole inside of them with pills, booze, porn and Netflix, since real emotions are real hard. Real life takes a constant commitment far above either their pay-grade or courage. Real life = real work.

 Listen to me, young people: if you, at college or wherever, are lucky enough to stumble upon something that makes your heart race, grab it with both hands and don’t let go! This is the beginning of your discovery of your passion, i.e. of yourself. And the more you commit, the harder you fight, the luckier you’ll be. Your passion will save your life. I speak from first-hand, bloody experience.

 When I was in my 30s, seriously depressed, hating my daily existence, because of some poor personal choices, do you know what allowed me to get on the path that eventually gave me back to myself? It wasn’t graduating with honors. It sure as hell wasn’t my law degree. (I keep that framed above my desk, the way some people treasure the heavily polished skulls of their enemies: as a trophy. Thank god I’m not bitter.)

 What saved my life was remembering how exciting it had once been to jump out of bed in the morning, in love with my life. What saved my life was my ability to admit to my mistakes, so that I could correct them. The path that saved me, was weird and winding, indeed, and it could only have begun with passion. 

 What saved my life? Well, yes, in a sense, it was my decision to major in history.

 “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything.” –The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger 

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