On the frame of mind for university and career choices

I recently received an email where the person asked me about how to approach university studies with regard to making a career. I asked for permission to reproduce the relevant parts, while removing all personally identifying information.

I am hoping you can enlighten me once again with your wisdom! Since speaking to you, I’ve realized that I am temperamentally similar to you when it comes to education. So I want to ask: What do you think of students chasing their interests and passions — no matter how vaguely they’ve defined it to themselves — as the strategy from transitioning from university to finding a living (e.g. career)? The thinking often presented to me is that if you do this you will not only be more fulfilled but you can turn that interest into something profitable or marketable.

Let me abstract this a bit just so that we get into the right frame of mind. In order to determine whether what we do is fulfilling we must apply a basic technique of identifying the actual goal and then assessing the adequacy of the means used to pursue it.

Say you are a creative person and you want your creativity (e.g. writing) to be part of what you do. You must then ask what are the prerequisites for reaching that objective. Once you know those, you proceed to find the factors that are specific to your case, which frame, inform, influence, or otherwise condition the relationship between the means and the end.

In this example of expressing yourself through writing: the goal is to fill an inner need of creativity because, say, it makes you happy and keeps you calm. The means can be through a private diary or a blog. Then comes the environment: are the people that surround me facilitating or inhibiting my means and thus preventing the realisation of the end? Is my current lifestyle suitable for what I want to do? And if not, then what exactly can be changed for me to be able to accomplish what I want?

The “what I want” is not always obvious, nor static, nor known in advance. We can always have false wants or desires we once thought would be good for us yet turn out to be unfulfilling. So we must remain mindful of our condition, such as by being honest to ourselves: is what I am doing right now making me happy? Is it sufficient for what I am trying to do? Can I improve upon it?

Now to the more specific points. We all go to university because it is a de facto requirement for having a better chance in the labour market. Yes, the university is about becoming a better version of yourself through studying but if that were the only goal we could apply the aforementioned technique and ask whether the means—the formal studies—are appropriate for the task, given one’s condition. The university is more than that, it provides you with a certificate which functions as a pass for certain jobs/careers. Without that pass it is practically impossible to enter and be employed in those sectors.

So now we introduce the realities of the modern world, of finding a job, being able to pay the bills, etc. These requirements must now be accounted for when inquiring about the factors that constitute the case we are immersed in. In other words, how does the search for a job, the need to feed myself, and so on, relate to my goal of creative writing? Must I combine the two to be happy? Will I still be happy if I just get a job that pays well, but otherwise have no outlet for my creativity?

What matters here are not the answers but the method. We want to know how things stand and we want to know how we are in relation to them or because of them.

To help us clarify our thoughts, it is appropriate to conduct thought experiments, with the proviso that they always are a simplification of reality and must thus not lead us into misunderstandings. Here is one such thought experiment: you have found the magic lamp which holds a genie that can grant you one wish among a given set of predetermined choices. The genie asks you what do you want the most? Or, in other words, it encourages you to set your priorities. Do you want to (1) satisfy your inner need for creativity, (2) be rich, (3) become famous, (4) wield power? When you try to answer this question also try to put an order to your preferences so that, e.g., I want the freedom of expression above all, then I am okay with making some money, but I don’t care about fame and power.

This prioritisation helps with the assessment we do about the means, the ends, and the constitution of our case (how the prevailing conditions in our life inform those magnitudes). Once we have the priorities in order, we test whether we can combine them. Can I get a job that satisfies my creativity and provides a decent income? If not, can I get a job which does not inhibit my creativity and pays decently? And you continue running through the various scenaria. If you can combine different goals then you go with that approach. If, however, you reach a point where you have to forgo something, if the trade-off is inescapable, you must be very honest about your priorities and choose the one you prefer the most.

Note what I wrote above:

The “what I want” is not always obvious, nor static, nor known in advance.

This is important because sometimes we reach a dead-end and may become desperate to find a way out. This is done by taking a step back and reconsidering our means and goals in light of the constitution of the case. It might be that what we once desired the most was not really of our own: it did not emanate from an inner impulse but was instead induced by external influences (e.g. an external influence can be that you want to be seen as having made a successful career because your peers will think highly of you or because everyone else does that). We cannot always know beforehand whether the “what I want” is genuine and complete, so we must exhaust all possibilities before going for the ‘nuclear option’.

With those granted, and without knowing you too well to be able to make specific comments, I say you should not be afraid to pursue your interests and passions. Chances are that those can also go together with a decent job. Though do bear in mind that people change and what once interested you the most may one day not seem appealing. Listen to what others have to say, such as your professors and family, and try to keep yourself in check by figuring out whether your interests/passions are truly yours and how much you want to commit to them. Sometimes other people can help us gain a sense of perspective, so they may be right. Though there also exists the possibility that they are wrong, at which point you must fearlessly mark your own path.

As already noted, this is not about giving you an answer, for that requires knowledge of all the specifics. Only you can know those (and you need to be honest to yourself if you are to have a chance at finding the right answers). This is about outlining a method; a method to frame those issues in order to make sense of them and decide on them accordingly.