When I Realized Choosing a College Major isn’t a Life Sentence

I had an a-ha moment today. In a training meeting on email marketing at my new job, I interrupted webinar-man to thank him for his suggestions on how to learn basic HTML, letting him know I wouldn’t need to, because I already know basic HTML. I was then transported immediately back to high school, when advisers encourage you to choose elective classes based on what you *think* you might want to do for a career. You know, when they imply to a 14 year-old that their choice about whether to take Computer Skills or watch CSI in Forensics all year will make or break what they end up majoring in and ultimately doing with their life.

When I approached that life-determining dilemma (and chose Forensics), I thought, “my interests are all so different. How am I supposed to know which classes to take? If I choose the wrong one, I’ll be behind, never have a job,” teenage existential crisis, etc. And the career aptitude tests we took seemed to confirm the uselessness of my split interests. My 14 year-old self was apparently equally prepared to be a web designer, pathologist (I really liked the movie Outbreak), Spanish translator, or CIA agent. Thanks for narrowing it down.

I proceeded toward college with vast forensic expertise (jk) while realizing that I enjoyed Spanish, English and Government more than other classes, and that I wanted to “change the world through intercultural cooperation.” I wanted to know how people connected with each other. I visited Italy for 6 days and was done with the U.S. for good. But the part of me that stayed up late with my sister throughout middle school designing websites and teaching ourselves Photoshop was worried – what kind of job will I ever get with those interests? Shouldn’t I be looking into marketing instead? How will I ever make money?

That joy that comes when you do something you love. That small voice that tells you, “I like this. Do this again. You are good at it. Keep going.” That is the juicy stuff that lubricates our lives and helps us feel less alone in the world.”

-Amy Poehler, Yes Please

Then choosing an academic track in college only solidified my confusion and impending career anxiety. My university put me on a political science trajectory, that I quickly abandoned after a semester of dry political theory (a rash choice that my current D.C.-residing self considers foolish). My interest in international cooperation budding, I chose to pursue sociology instead while taking Italian as a prerequisite to a double major in international relations. Every semester when I talked to friends who had chosen either business or communications tracks, and were taking classes on HTML and graphic design, I felt pangs of regret. These people were learning skills you needed for real JOBS! And there I was discussing pasta vocabulary and taking notes on the sexism inherent in football for Sociology of Sports.

I think we should stop asking people in their twenties what they “want to do” and start asking them what they don’t want to do. Instead of asking students to “declare their major” we should ask students to “list what they will do anything to avoid.” It just makes a lot more sense.

– Amy Poehler, Yes Please

Well, fast forward to life after college. I followed through with the prospect-less sociology major and gave up the international relations degree in favor of Italian Studies and a year eating pasta abroad. I waded through the post-graduation I’m-not-qualified-for-any-jobs-no-one-uses-Italian-why-did-I-do-that crisis that ensued. Took a risk on an unpaid internship to move to D.C., and am now beginning my second real job, in communications on international security issues.

And the a-ha moment came today because I realized: I’m doing it. I’m doing everything the career test told me! (okay, excluding the CIA) I’m getting paid to set up websites and design graphics and study how people communicate and what governs international cooperation and even how diseases spread (my office works on nuclear and biological threats to global security). 14 year-old me would never have guessed I’d be here! Even college graduate me couldn’t have visualized a job that encompasses my diverse interests so perfectly.

So the moral of the story I’d tell 14 year-old me is: keep cultivating all your interests, no matter how unrelated they seem. Sociology is not career-suicide. There ARE people in the U.S. who will speak Italian to you. Jobs you will enjoy and are totally qualified for are out there and you will find them, even if you can’t imagine them right now.


If you need a good laugh, some life motivation and wisdom, and enjoyed the Amy Poehler quotations in this post, I highly recommend her book, “Yes Please.”

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