When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing
Whether you’re an incoming freshman or a sixth-year senior, it’s OK to not know what you’re doing. In fact, it’s better than thinking you have your life’s plan all figured out.
Let me explain.
Today I have a corner office in downtown Chicago and serve in a senior leadership role at an organization I care deeply about. But I remember all too well the anxiety of feeling behind everybody else. After finally deciding what college we were going to attend, adults immediately peppered my friends and I with the same question, “what’s your major?” And a couple years later, “what are you going to do after you graduate?”
When I attended Notre Dame it felt like everyone else had the answers to those two questions figured out. The engineering majors knew where they wanted to work after graduation, the music majors had the passion for music since childhood, and the English majors loved writing. I was jealous.
I was terrible at science. I enjoyed listening to music but couldn’t play an instrument. And I struggled through every term paper. So I settled into the only major that I thought made sense for someone without real skills or passion: accounting.
I remember late night conversations with my roommate, talking about how I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation. “People say accounting gives you a good chance at a job,” I remember saying, “so I guess I’ll do accounting.”
My roommate, with his head in a philosophy book, would ask why I didn’t pick a major I was passionate about. But I wasn’t sure what I was passionate about. It wasn’t accounting.
My roommate knew that he loved philosophy. Even though he did not know what he wanted to do after graduation or how his philosophy major would provide a financially viable career, he was “following his passion.” Again, I was jealous.
I never developed a passion for accounting. But I did pour myself into my studies and took advantage of campus life. A decade later, I am not a practicing accountant, but my degree from Notre Dame—and the hard work that it represents—was a vital tool in my professional success and enjoyment.
Research shows that I’m not an anomaly. In fact, it suggests that assuming everyone has an underlying passion that they need to discover and pursue professionally is wrong.
“Don’t follow your passion” is the theme of Cal Newport’s book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” He explains that “[i]f you really study people with meaning and passion in their work, it has little to do with whether the topic of their job matches their pre-existing passions.”
Further, the mindset that your profession needs to follow passion in order to be fulfilling is a set-up for disappointment. “Telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism,” writes Newport, “but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”
His argument also makes economic sense. There are a lot of things that we enjoy doing, but we will be unlikely to convince someone (outside of our parents) to pay us to do them. I enjoy traveling to Montana during the winter to go skiing during the days and spend the night out eating and drinking. I would argue that I am passionate about all of those activities. But nobody is going to pay me for any of it. In fact, I have to pay for all of them.
You should pursue your career with the same economic mindset and search for the value that you will create for the world.
When you become so good at your job, and people gravitate toward your professional value, you will grow to love your career.
That is not to say you should stay in a field or position that makes you miserable. Rather, it is to say that professional enjoyment is more likely when your emphasis is on being the best at your job. Create passion for your job, rather than seeking a job for which you are passionate. (And you should consider that “following your passion” may make it harder to leave job conditions that are, in fact, making you miserable.)
There are also psychological reasons why it’s OK for you not to have a detailed plan for the rest of your life while you’re still in college. Your brain, specifically the part responsible for planning, is still growing.
While most brain development is completed by the age of 20, the prefrontal cortex does not fully mature until ages 25-30. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that does complex planning, decision making and logical thinking.
“During your teens and early twenties you are more or less in the last phase of development,” writes Fabien van den Berg, a neuroscientist and psychologist. “The last areas to mature are the frontal areas. The ones we use for executive functions like planning, inhibition, reasoning, and problem solving.”
“A good example is that teenagers/adolescents rely more on their emotional areas when making decisions or interpretations. They are swayed more by their peers, wanting approval, seeking sensation. Combine that with less developed planning and reasoning, and we get some typical teen behavior.”
So at the same time you’re trying to make decisions about the rest of your life, your decisions are weighted toward emotion and impulse. In other words, the flawed concept of “following your passion” is especially enticing.
Years after graduation, my college roommate who was so passionate about philosophy became a very successful lawyer.
While I got a job immediately after graduation, it was in politics, not accounting. It was also not my passion, but it was where I could create value and gain valuable skills.
It became my passion.
Over a decade after graduating from Notre Dame, both my college roommate and I have fulfilling careers, and neither came out of our teenage passions. But the fundamental skills that we use every day were developed inside the classroom. Instead of focusing on your passion, work hard, surround yourself with great teachers, mentors and coaches, embrace the struggle of learning, and don’t be afraid to fail (but more importantly, learn from those failures) – these will provide value after graduation, regardless of your major.
Dumping the idea of “follow your passion” is not an exhortation to wander aimlessly. But for those who are struggling with finding a plan, and perhaps for those who have mapped out their trajectory since kindergarten, it’s worth consideration.
Matt Paprocki is a 2005 graduate with a degree in accounting. He is the executive vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute.