Outside’s long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors.
Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m now in my sophomore year of college, and because of my university’s rules, I will need to declare a major this year. I have a lot of interests, maybe too many. I’ve considered geology and biology, but I’m also interested in marketing, and I love photography. Choosing my major feels like an impossible choice, because I know it will change the course of my entire life. If I become a geologist, I will live a different life than if I was a photographer, but which one’s better? Each choice leads to a different future, but I don’t know what will make me happier or more successful. How do you make a decision in this kind of situation?
Congrats on starting your sophomore year! You’re in a good position; it’s far better to have too many interests than to struggle to find a single passion. Although I know, in this case, that multiple options don’t make the decision easier. You’re standing in the cereal aisle of life.
This may be one of the first times that you’re really facing (or thinking about) the life-altering qualities of a decision, but you’ll find that these kinds of choices come pretty frequently in adulthood. What major should you pick? What job should you pursue? Should you get married—and if so, to whom? Where in the country—or world—will you live? Each one of these decisions carries the weight of potential lives that will go un-lived. “The question, sweet pea, is who do you intend to be,” Cheryl Strayed wrote once to someone feeling similarly indecisive—
There are a couple ways to think about undergraduate majors, and I’d also encourage you to talk with your guidance counselor and professors as you keep narrowing things down. Ask yourself: Do I love this subject? Do I feel genuinely excited to study it? If there were no grades involved, and no credentials, would I still want to devote myself to learning it? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you’re on a fantastic track.
Secondly: Do the careers associated with this major appeal to me? If you know for sure that you don’t want to continue pursuing the subject after college—or that it won’t prepare you for jobs that will meet your needs—that’s a good reason to strike it off your list. You can always minor in a subject, or take a bunch of electives in it, without pursuing it as your actual degree.
Of course, many people end up with careers that have nothing to do with their majors (though they often find that their studies continue to help and influence them in unexpected ways). It’s not that each major represents a different life you could lead, and in choosing one, you’re picking the fixed path that comes with it. It’s more like each major represents a different direction to start in, but there are an infinite number of forks and crossroads along the way, and they often curve back and overlap in ways you couldn’t have foreseen. With each choice you make, and every experience you have, you won’t just go farther down a path; you’ll also get a better sense of the kind of destination you want. And once you know that, you can steer accordingly.
You’re standing in the cereal aisle of life.
It could be that you end up as a librarian, or a doctor—and biology could be the starting place for either one. Maybe you’ll be an artist, and though your art will be informed by the things you learned along the way, no path could ever have stopped you from making it. You simply can’t know the endpoints yet. You don’t have to know. Even when we think we know these things, we’re often wrong. And many of your most purposeful classmates—the ones who have already picked their majors, and have very specific life paths in mind—will end up surprising themselves countless times over.
What makes the biggest difference, at this point in your life, may not be your specific major so much as the skills and habits you build. As much as possible, try to make decisions out of excitement, not fear. That is, choose the option that excites you most, the one that you can’t stop thinking about, rather than the one that scares you the least. Focus on building relationships (and relationship skills), both with peers and with teachers. People talk a lot about the value of the word “no,” but at this stage in your life, one of the best things you can say is “yes.” Yes to unusual things. Yes to going new places. Yes to 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’re going to be.
The thing is—and this may or may not be comforting, depending on your perspective—that you’re going to encounter countless life-changing decisions over the next decades, and you might not even recognize them at the time. Some of the biggest shifts in my own life have come from seemingly random events: the guy I sat next to in class, the job that got cancelled and left me scrambling for a new one last-minute, the phone call I got one Thanksgiving from an old coworker offering me six dogs. Your exact future isn’t under your control, and it never will be—but with every year that goes by, you’ll 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 be astonished all over again by what you’ve learned and how you got there.