Picking a career is a big deal. You’re going to make sacrifices, invest time, money, more time, more money for the sake of an education that will lead to the occupation that’s going to consume half of your waking life. You want a good return on investment, you want satisfaction, you want validation. And the idea of putting all that time, effort and money into a career choice that you find yourself dissatisfied or unhappy with is probably enough to make you want to hide under the college course catalog.

We know you are nervous, so here are a few ideas to help you avoid picking the wrong major. Once you know which ones aren’t for you, you can put your energy into picking one that is.

Mistake Number One: Show Me the Money. JUST the Money

It’s a fundamental truth that the reason most of us get the education we get is to get a job that will support us well. That’s a perfectly reasonable motivation. But if the only thing you have your eyes on are the dollar signs, the end result is not going to be a pretty one.

What’s wrong with money?

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a good income. But when considering the longevity of a career, a paycheck can only go so far. You may say to yourself, “I can put up with anything if you pay me enough,” but that philosophy doesn’t last as long as you think it will.

When you think of the big ticket majors – medicine, business, engineering, finance – the first thing you might be considering may be the lovely paycheck that goes with them. But the curriculum is demanding and the jobs are even more so. The commitment to the coursework and the fast-paced jobs that follow require more than a salary to shore them up.

If passion and fundamental interest in the job aren’t the leading couple when you play the movie of your career in your head, you will find it very hard to make yourself do the job day after day, year after year.

Mistake Number Two: Doing what doesn’t come naturally

A lot of things can be learned. Policies, procedures, compliance guidelines, work flow. The hows and whys are what we study when we pick a major. But the career a degree leads to may require other less tangible abilities for success and those things are very hard to learn if they’re not part of your basic make-up.

  • If you don’t like unpredictability, the stock market is not the wisest choice.
  • Someone who is shy will not do well in sales
  • People who need contact with others to motivate them will do poorly in a work-from-home setting
  • People who struggle with organization or details may not do well in administrative support careers.

When you consider your major, think about the jobs that it may lead to and what kind of people are most successful at them. Then be honest and self-appraising about your own strengths and weaknesses to decide if you will be satisfied and effective in those occupations.

Mistake Number Three: Dreaming the Impossible Dream

Who doesn’t lie in bed as a child imagining sweeping the stage in toe-slippers, or piloting a rocket to the moon? Fantasizing about future fame and adventure is what growing minds do.

But at a certain point reality should elbow its way in so you can weigh the odds of actually getting the fantasy job against more down-to-earth options. Becoming a rock star, an A-List Hollywood actor, a best selling novelist or word-class athlete has a likelihood of about one in a million.

When picking a major, it’s unwise to use a fantasy image from childhood or fundamentally unrealistic outcome as the path through your education. An education comes with a price tag that needs to be paid through hard work, and a career that depends on a long-shot opportunity puts you at risk. Additionally, a degree to prepare you for the miracle job leaves you unprepared to do anything else. If the novel doesn’t sell, or a dance company isn’t interested, the kinds of jobs that are open to the graduate with the highly specialized art or music degree are generally unskilled and low-paying.

But what about passion and creativity?

Both are important. But both have countless applications that aren’t limited to celebrity jobs or fantasy careers. If you love writing, there are careers that need you that don’t depend on you becoming a best-selling author. If you are a dedicated musician, you can pick a major that will let you use your passion in ways that don’t require a multi-million dollar record deal. And if you are truly gifted and passionate, keep doing what you do and use your education to get you a career that will support you while you do it.

The Final Rule: A Clear Vision

Money isn’t everything, know yourself, and be realistic. We know all those things deep down, but when looking at our future it can be a challenge to keep ourselves focused on an honest and unclouded horizon. But picking a major that will guide you to a career that suits you leads to the best satisfaction, the longest shelf-life and the most natural you. All those things go solidly in the “win” column.

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