2014-01-23

What They Should Have Told You About School

Part One:
When I was in my 3rd year of medical school and we all had to select our tax bracket, the Asian women went into surgery, ophthalmology, or the last two years of a PhD program, you know where the borderline sleeves went? Pediatrics, which I think is technically sublimation but I'm no psychiatrist. The logic was straightforward: they wanted kids, and, unlike surgery, pediatrics offered future doctor-moms a bit of flexibility, while the Asian women apparently didn't worry about working late because their kids would be at violin till 9:30.
-- The Last Psychiatrist, "Don't Hate Her Because She's Successful"

Part Two:
In a former life, back when I considered myself intellectually exceptional and precocious - in other words, back when I was a mere boy - I suffered from many of the common conceits of boys in my position. The first was the belief that I possessed an above-average level of personal career ambition. The second was the belief that I possessed an above-average intellect. There are an uncomfortably high number of seedy details in the story of how and why I believed such things about myself, but they are mostly insignificant because, like a lot of people in my position, exposure to the real world beat a sense of humility into me. (This is absolutely true, even if it is not obvious from reading my blog.)

Perhaps I now suffer from a conceit of a different color: the vanity of believing that my own experience is reflective of a broader truth. If so, I implore the reader to engage in a little suspension of disbelief for the purpose of finding out whether or not it actually is true; and also - hopefully - entertainment. That is to say, allow me the vanity of believing that I'm not so different than other people, after all.

Like a good, intelligent, ambitious young man, I set myself on course for excellence! I declared upon admission to university a double-major: political science and economics. The reason I chose economics is because I found it interesting; the reason I choice political science is because it said "Pre-Law." Thus, I decided I would pursue a career as - don't laugh - no, wait, go ahead and laugh - a criminal defense attorney! 

A few weeks into my university career, during the course of a mandatory meeting with my academic advisor in the Economics Department, I was informed that the phrase "Pre-Law" does not actually mean anything, because everything is a "pre-law" degree. Law schools don't require a "pre-law" specialization in the same sense that, say, medical school requires a biology specialization.

Get that? I planned on going to law school, and I actually had no idea that all you needed for law school was a degree in anything else. As you can see, research was not my strong suit back then.

Well, that ended my political science career forever. For a time after that, I decided a dual-major in economics and accounting was the right way to go. After falling asleep in each and every lecture of an entire semester's worth of Managerial Accounting, however, I concluded that what my "dream job" had always really been was neither criminal defense attorney nor captain of industry. Rather, my dream job was that of academic economist! I would grow a beard, lose my hair, wear a plaid shirt, and ride a scooter. For the rest of my life. (Okay, I'm being too hard on myself. I actually wanted to be John Cochrane.)

Sometime during the final months of my bachelor's degree, life happened, and I found my way to other adventures. That's not important. What's important is what everyone had been telling me since the day I scrawled the word "economics" on my college application:
Get a useful degree, Ryan, and get a nice job out of college. What will you do with an economics degree? Major in engineering. Go to med school. Study computers.
And so on.

"Bah!" I thought, and so thinks every pseudo-ambitious, pseudo-intellectual young man during his college years. "I don't need to study something useful! I need to study something I am interested in! I can make a career out of my passion!"

Part Three:
The funny thing is that every adult tells every young person the same thing when it's time to pack up and go to college, and every young person has a million arguments for why it's bad advice. People get jobs no matter what they choose to study. You can't force yourself to graduate at the top of the heap if you can't even keep your eyes open because the subject matter is boring! (Well, that one I do agree with.) So you might as well study what you enjoy. College is about the experience, anyway! Wheee...!

Parental advice never sinks in with kids because the parents are making their point poorly. No young person will ever care about getting a "good job." There's no such thing as a "good job." Jobs suck. The only "good job" out there is the one that pays you millions of dollars a year and asks precious little of you for it - which is to say no job at all.

But young people do understand that we must work for a living. Those who haven't figured it out by the time they reach their college years end up figuring it out in college. It's true, and everyone knows it.

There is one thing, however, that young people - and even most adults - do not properly understand, which is this simple truth: Every job out there is about equally as hard as every other job. Every job demands some overtime; every job demands that you sell yourself and turn yourself into a schmuck; every job demands that you put in some face-time and do some networking; every job (these days) demands that you know how to do some basic computer code-writing; every job involves and over-bearing boss, a report that nobody reads, and a bunch of meetings that no one enjoys.

In short, pretty much every job is the same. You might have a unique love for the outdoors, in which case you would rather be a lumberjack than a computer programmer, or a construction worker rather than a graphic designer. Or, you might have a unique love for creative pursuits, in which case you might rather pursue jobs that require more creativity from you and less quantitative analysis. Whatever. Those kinds of details aren't all that important from the standpoint of the big picture. All that really means is that, whatever you decide to do for a living, you should try to work your way into the industry that feels like home for you.

But whatever. Details.

Part Four:
Once you wrap your head around the fact that all jobs are more or less the same, then a student's choice of major in college becomes a much clearer decision. It becomes less important to "study what you want." It becomes less important to "get a good job after school." What remains is a single, crucial choice, one that will follow you for the rest of your life.

There is a reason I lead-in with that quote from The Last Psychiatrist. In it, he very casually mentions the whole purpose of a college education.

He writes, "When I was in my 3rd year of medical school and we all had to select our tax bracket...."

College is your opportunity to select your tax bracket. When you take that to heart, the decision becomes much easier. Lower tax brackets involve much less responsibility, and that is a choice that appeals to many people. In fact, there's nothing wrong at all with preferring a life of modest means and modest achievements, if that's what your choice is.

But if believe, as I did when I was that age, that financial success will come to you if you make the most of your intellectual passions, then the message I would like to give you is simply this: You are squandering your intellect.

If you really do want to achieve something later in your life, then it is in your best interest to choose a high tax bracket during your college years. That means: Choose a college diploma that gives you very high earnings potential and work your tail off to be at the head of your class. Then, leverage that diploma and those grades toward getting the highest-paying job you can possibly find. It is at that point that all of the pieces finally fit together in your head.

Ten years later, ten years after graduating college, you will finally know what you want to do for a living. It might not be what you're doing, but you will have the means to pursue it, whatever it is. By "means" I mean both the financial ability to pay for it and the work experience required to earn a place in that position, whatever it might be.

You'll be expertly positioned for a lifetime of success in a field you enjoy. That's what you want, right?