Advice on How to Make a Really Big Decision


Welcome to Tough Love. We answer your questions about dating, breakups and everything in between. Our advisor is Blair Braverman, dog sled racer and author of Welcome to the goddamn ice cube. Do you have a question of your own? Write to us at [email protected]

I am now in my sophomore year of college and due to the rules of my university I need to major this year. I have many interests, maybe too many. I’ve considered geology and biology, but I’m also interested in marketing and I love photography. Choosing my major seems like an impossible choice because I know it will change the course of my entire life. If I become a geologist my life will be different than if I were a photographer, but which one is better? Every choice leads to a different future, but I don’t know what will make me happier or more successful. How do you decide in a situation like this?

Congratulations on starting the second year! You are in a good position; It’s far better to have too many interests than to struggle to find a single passion. Although I know that in this case having multiple options doesn’t make the decision any easier. You’re in the muesli aisle of life.

This may be the first time you’ve truly faced (or contemplated) the life-changing qualities of a decision, but you’ll find that these types of decisions are fairly common in adulthood. Which major should you choose? What job should you do? Should you marry – and if so, who? Where in the country – or in the world – will you live? Each of these choices carries the weight of potential lives not lived. “The question, sweet pea, is who do you intend to be,” Cheryl Strayed once wrote to someone feeling similarly indecisive –although in this case the man has made a decision about whether he wants to have children, which (luckily for you!) is far more irreversible than your own decision at the moment.

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There are a few ways to think about undergraduate majors, and I also encourage you to talk to your college advisor and professors as you narrow things down further. Ask yourself: do I love this subject? Am I really excited to study it? If there were no grades and no certificates, would I still want to study? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are on a fantastic journey.

Second: Am I attracted to the professions associated with this course? If you know for sure that you don’t want to pursue the subject after you graduate—or that it won’t prepare you for jobs that meet your needs—then that’s a good reason to cross it off your list. You can always take a subject as a minor or a series of electives without pursuing it as an actual degree.

Of course, many people end up with careers unrelated to their major (although they often find that their studies continue to help them and influence them in unexpected ways). It’s not that each major represents a different life you could lead, and when you choose one, you’re choosing the solid path that comes with it. It’s more like each major represents a different starting direction, but there are an infinite number of forks and junctions along the way, and they often bend back and overlap in ways you couldn’t have foreseen. With every decision you make and every experience you have, you will not only go one way further; You’ll also get a better sense of the type of target you want. And if you know that, you can steer accordingly.

You’re in the muesli aisle of life.

You could be a librarian or a doctor, and biology could be the starting point for both. Perhaps you will become an artist and while your art will be influenced by the things you have learned along the way, no path could ever have stopped you from creating it. You just may not know the endpoints yet. You don’t have to know. Even when we think we know these things, we are often wrong. And many of your most single-minded classmates — those who have already chosen their majors and have very specific paths in life in mind — will surprise themselves countless times.

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What makes the biggest difference at this point in your life may not be your specific major, but the skills and habits you develop. As much as possible, try to make decisions out of excitement, not fear. That said, choose the option that excites you the most, the one you can’t stop thinking about, and not the one that scares you the least. Focus on building relationships (and relationship skills) with both peers and teachers. People talk a lot about the value of the word “no,” but at this point in your life, one of the best things you can say is “yes.” Yes to unusual things. Yes to new places. Yes, making friends with people who don’t seem like your type. Your world is getting bigger every day and the bigger you can make it, the freer you will be.

The thing is — and this may or may not be reassuring depending on your perspective — you’re going to be making countless life-changing decisions over the next few decades, and you might not even realize them at this point. Some of the biggest changes in my own life have come from seemingly random events: the guy I sat next to in class, the job that got cut and made me fight for a new one at the last minute, the phone call I got a Thanksgiving got an old colleague who offers me six dogs. Your exact future is not in your control and never will be – but with each passing year you will continue to shape the kind of life you want to lead and the kind of person you want to be. And when you look back, you’ll never cease to be amazed at what you learned and how you got there.

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