Why I’m Glad I Got a “Worthless” Liberal Arts Degree

Why I’m Glad I Got a Worthless Liberal Arts Degree

Because nobody was involved in my education, and because I didn’t know any better, I graduated college with an English degree.

It wasn’t until three years after I’d started college that it occurred to my mom to find out what she had been paying for the entire time. She was headed to a party that night and wanted to brag to her friends, so she knocked on my door and asked me what I was studying at school. When I told her, she shook her head, “English??? But you already know HOW to speak English,” then padded back to the couch in her slippers.

There was no bragging done that night.

In any case, my mom would have been happy if I went to work with her at the factory, making $13 an hour. Instead, I chose uncharted waters–I was the first person in my family to graduate high school and go to college. And my mom’s indifference? It ended up being a huge stroke of luck.

Because I got to navigate college without a template. It meant I had the freedom to make my own decisions about what to study without any preconceived notions, a luxury that many of today’s college students rarely get.

Instead, they get a heck of a lot of noise–from parents, teachers, friends and randos on the Internet–disguised as well-intentioned advice:

Society: Liberal arts degrees are worthless.
Luxe: Most degrees are if you can’t figure out how to apply them.

Society: Pick a career based on whichever pays a lot of money.
Luxe: But what if that career makes me want to gouge my eyes out every day?

Society: If you want to retire early, study STEM and become an engineer.
Luxe: OK, like we all are capable of being superstar engineers…Have you seen that balsa wood bridge I built in Physics class? It cracked under like, three pounds.

All these messages swirl together so that we start believing that there’s a template to success: traditional careers are where it’s at, with no regard to our individual talents and values.

With sky-high tuition costs, student loans to match, and low entry-level salaries as the norm these days, it’s understandable that people gravitate toward well-defined paths with obvious career prospects.

Because we get scared. Uncertainty (and the idea of living under a bridge) is like that creepy clown from IT that gave me nightmares when I was a kid. No one wants to worry about where their rent money is going to come from.

And so we go off and make these SUPER HUGE LIFE decisions based on what other people say–people who might be projecting their own insecurities, or working off a success template that worked 30 years ago but not anymore.

But are there other paths to success? Ones that might be truer to who we are?

And whose definition of success are we working off of, anyway?

Here’s what I don’t think is successful: making good money at a job I dread every day. Or, living in a world where nobody dreams, takes risks, or lives for themselves. Just the other day I read an article about that Kevin Kwan guy who wrote Crazy Rich Asians. I thought, what if he had decided to be an ophthalmologist like his dad and never pursued his creative interests? We might still be wondering why the heck there’s no movie with all-Asian actors that aren’t caricatures. Choosing the uncertain, less-defined path doesn’t have to mean your contributions matter less to the world, or that you’re destined for a life of financial instability.

You Can Carve Your Own Path and Still Succeed

I recently asked people on Instagram how they chose their majors. Some said their parents made them outline how their major would lead to a job, some were influenced by offhand comments from friends, some were led by their interests, others by practicality and money, and many regretted their choices altogether. The only thing in common was that there was nothing in common: there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everybody.

So why do we treat school like there’s only one valid way? That there are some fields that are prized, and others, like mine, that lead you to a life of pauperdom.

I know there are other paths, because I’ve been down those roads myself. While I’m not a career coach, I did navigate college in a way that would have horrified society and somehow I still ended up alright. While the process wasn’t easy, it taught me so much about life, money and careers.

So today I’m talking about a totally unconventional way of thinking about school: we aren’t failures if our majors don’t lead to corresponding careers, there’s value in learning without chasing an end goal, and making choices based on who we are might lead to more fulfilling lives.

The Problems with the Conventional Ways We Choose Careers

We choose careers based on status and end goals.
Somehow along the way the purpose of college morphed from a place to learn and explore to: “How much money will I make out of college?” Hey, I like money. Money is important. But is it the only thing that matters?

When I was little, my mom’s friend asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I was five, and had no idea. Like most kids who don’t know what to do, I looked over at my mom for guidance. She leaned over and whispered, “A doctor…or a nurse.”

“A doctor or a nurse!” I parroted.

Here’s the funny part: neither one of those careers had anything to do with who I am as a person. As a child, I remember working alone a lot, either reading, building my own toys, or teaching myself how to do stuff. None of these activities lent themselves to a medical career. My mom just picked them because they were professions that everyone knew and seemed prestigious. Let’s be real: how many of us choose career paths just because they sound good? More importantly, how many of our parents choose these paths for us?

We are forced to choose a path when we’ve had limited life experience.
Some people have everything figured out when they’re eight years old. They pick a path, actually follow through, and fulfillment and money quickly follow suit.

But most of us aren’t that lucky. We don’t know what we’re good at, what our passions are, or have a sense of all the future career paths are available to us. As an 19-year-old, I had no idea that the job I have now even existed, because the world moves so fast now.

Instead, many of us resort to half-baked life decisions, because we’re barely out of our teens and haven’t had enough time to develop self-awareness. Instead of working from the inside out, choosing paths based on who we are, sometimes we end up trying to retrofit ourselves to careers that may or may not be right for us in the first place.

Following someone else’s agenda can lead to lifelong regrets.
Everybody has been influenced by someone else in some way, and it’s not always a bad thing. But when it comes to big decisions, listening to someone else before ourselves can leave us with regrets that last a lifetime. Everybody knows someone who’s a teacher because everyone else in that person’s family is a teacher, too. Maybe they wanted to be a teacher independently, or maybe they felt pressured to to uphold the family tradition. It’s worth asking, whose idea is this anyway? If you lead your life by someone else’s agenda, and it doesn’t work out for you, you run the risk of resenting that person later. Yes, even family.

We risk never reaching our full potential.
Then there’s the saddest consequence of all: going through life wondering “What if?” How many of us are pushed onto a certain path, when we know in our hearts that we’re meant to do something else?

Like many immigrant kids with no safety net, my friend’s parents refused to pay for an English degree. She had two choices:

  1. Go to an Ivy League school with her parent’s help and major in something practical.
  2. Go to a state school that offered a full scholarship where she could major in whatever she wanted.

She decided to go to the state school. Now, not only has she absolutely killed it at her publishing career, but she’s written several well-regarded fiction books. As a kid who found refuge in sci-fi stories growing up, a career in books is part of her identity, and doing anything else would have been denying her true self.

And what about the people who made the “right” decisions?

A few months ago I came across a post from an old financial independence blog about an engineer reflecting on some English papers he wrote in college. I was only a few paragraphs in when I felt tears streaming down my face, because it was clear to me: here was an engineer who was meant to be a writer. If someone can make you feel something with their writing, that’s a gift. While I’m sure this person was a fine engineer, I wonder what kind of other stories the world has missed out on, because he’d been discouraged to follow a “silly” path like writing. He even wonders himself, “No doubt about it: I became an expert in my field, but at what cost?”

Why Many Majors Are “Worthless”

Needless to say, it went against every fiber of my being to choose a career to work toward. I simply didn’t have enough information to know. If you had asked me what my skills were, you would have been met with a blank stare. The only indicator I had was decent writing scores in high school, but that didn’t seem to correlate to how well I’d fare in a practical career (as you’ll see below).

Since I had no existing framework for how to choose a major or career track, I made decisions based on what made sense to me:

  • I chose my major based on my interests and what I thought I was good at.
  • I took classes for fun that had nothing to do with my major.
  • I didn’t obsess about getting perfect grades, because a lot of my free time was spent working.
  • When I thought about my English major I didn’t see a clear job prospect:
    • I didn’t have the patience to teach.
    • I didn’t have the discipline to write.
    • I didn’t have the personality for journalism.
    • I failed Art History, which messed up my GPA, and couldn’t fathom the idea of grad school.
    • I had no connections and didn’t think to use the Career Resources center once.

My future looked grim.

But instead of picking a pre-defined path that I knew wasn’t right, I trusted that I could create my own path. For me, a lack of direction where I could take one small step was better than barrelling down the wrong direction.

Now that I’m out of school and have worked more jobs than I can count, I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight and can reflect on the real factors that helped me find career success:

  • An Excel class from high school
  • A random website building class
  • An animation project I did for a Shakespeare class
  • The nine different jobs, internships and activities I was involved in

Notice what they have in common: most of them had nothing to do with my English classes.

Some might think that I failed in choosing a major.

But I look at it differently. My major didn’t matter. It didn’t matter.

Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing, because I think I got something better. By getting experience outside of my major, I have a job that engages not just one interest, but weaves four or five of them together. And I make more money than I need. While I don’t want to say exactly what I do because of anonymity purposes, I get to build tangible things from the ground up, come up with creative ideas, and use my technical skills in the digital space–all things that I value. Every day I go to work and feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.

The Reality of Today’s Job Market

If I had majored in Underwater Basket-weaving, would it have mattered, as long as I actively pursued my interests?

I don’t know. But what I do know is this: The old template for success isn’t a slam dunk anymore. As many of today’s graduates can attest, putting your head down and earning a degree alone doesn’t guarantee a job.

There IS actually one thing that has stuck with me from my Shakespeare class. It’s that opening line from Hamlet: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Something is DEFINITELY rotten with how college is packaged up and sold as a success narrative for everyone. See these sexy statistics for how college graduates out-earn everyone else?

But what they don’t mention is that there is a big gap between the skills kids think they’re gaining in their classes and skills that are relevant in today’s workplace.

In lots of ways, schools don’t really teach us skills that help us succeed in the real-world: how to think critically, how to come up with actually-good ideas, or how to learn new stuff when there’s no teacher around. Within the school context, the measure of success is completing tasks within a defined set of parameters. Do X, Y and Z, and you get a gold star.

Contrast that to today’s job market where the only constant is that it’s constantly changing. Many of us can’t choose our future career paths, because we don’t know they exist yet. I don’t know about you, but when I was at college in my podunk town I had never heard of jobs that are all around me today, like Brand Manager, Creative Director, Music Supervisor or Events Producer. How do we prepare ourselves for these future jobs if we don’t know what they are?

That means that one critical skill graduates need is the ability to adapt. Most of us learn that by doing stuff, not sitting in a classroom.

If you think I’m just hypothesizing right now, know that I’m not totally making stuff up, because I’ve hired for interns and entry-level jobs.

The truth is, I look for kids who already know how to work.

If people continue to rely on their classes alone to qualify them for entry-level jobs, then they will be in for a rude awakening. Because here’s what they are competing with: kids who have three or four internships or work experiences by the time they are juniors in college.

At the end of the day, I’m a business, and I have to produce quickly. And so I hire people that I think can already do the job. I don’t care what they majored in and have never noticed anyone’s GPA.

My best hires have been the kids with the least amount of technical skills–my best one was a Sociology major–but who know how to learn stuff. All kinds of different stuff. I ask them a lot of open-ended questions in the interview to see how their mind works. Will they do exactly what I tell them, or will they come back at me with their own ideas? The latter is worth its weight in gold, because it’s rare.

These highly-employable kids are usually well-rounded and know how the system works, because they often come from well-off, privileged families. Lest you think that following the road less traveled is only reserved for the rich, I’m actually writing this for the working-class kids with dreams, to wedge their foot into industries where they don’t belong. Because they’re the ones who are more likely to be pushed onto tracks that they don’t want. If everybody’s dreams and potential are flattened by practicality, and everyone gets shoehorned into the same industries, well then, I think we’ve got work to do as a society.

Rethinking the College Experience

Instead of focusing on choosing the “right” majors, what we really need to be talking about is taking ownership over our own experience and education. Especially if you know that a nontraditional path is for you, you’ll need to plan smarter to avoid eating ramen forever.

Lead by your skills and interests.
When choosing a path, instead of reverse-engineering yourself to a career, lead from the inside out. What we choose to do with our free time says a lot about who we are. Think back to when you were little. What could you get lost doing, when there were no motives?

For me, it was working on an animation project for Shakespeare class. The only problem was, I had never made one before. So I asked my boyfriend at the time to download (illegally, sorry) an animation program, and I literally started pressing a bunch of buttons to see how everything worked. I didn’t wait to take a class to learn how to use it. One Friday night we were supposed to go to a party, but I was so into my project that I told my boyfriend to go without me. It’s worth noting these small signs, because they’ll give you an idea of the type of work that you could happily do for hours on end.

Think of college as a place to explore.
Most of us take college for granted. If you think about it, you have 50 subjects right at your fingertips. When will most of us ever have such a venue for exploration? Sure, you can learn new things later in life, but you’re probably going to have to be way more strategic about it.

And don’t be confined by your major classes. If you’re a pre-med major, but always loved fashion, consider a fashion internship one semester if you can swing it. Instead of going all in on one career, be open to exploring others. In today’s workplace, it’s the funky hybrids, like the person who’s good at tech and cooking, who seem to rise to the top.

Take classes outside of your major seriously.
When you take classes outside of your major, you can discover skills you don’t even know you had. My math and science scores were always average at best, and I always told myself I wasn’t any good at those subjects. But in college I decided to take a website building class to fulfill my science requirement. A prior programming class went straight over my head, but this one was different. All the concepts just clicked with me, and the teacher couldn’t find anything wrong with my final project, so she had to give me 100 on it. Turns out that I couldn’t graph a parabola if my life depended on it, but this little English major is actually good at learning programs and systems. Even though some of us can’t code, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for us in the tech world.

Get outside of the classroom and start doing stuff.
I cannot emphasize this enough. College graduates are now a dime a dozen. That means you need be proactive about standing out. Being different matters so much. Because all you’ve got to make an impression is a cover letter and resume. One way to do that is by participating in activities and working part-time jobs. All those clubs at schools that you can join for free? Those are like “starter jobs” where you get to practice how to work. For example, at my school there was a club that organized all the campus musical events. That person who negotiated all the talent to come to our school? They’re a mini project manager. Guess what? Most companies need project managers.

Create your own safety net by diversifying.
In a world that’s constantly changing, going all in on one subject can be dangerous. It’s like how people warn you not to buy individual stocks and buy a basket of stocks instead. Diversifying your skills in undergrad is the same concept. Following your passion isn’t always going to work out, so do you want to put all your eggs in one basket? Consider a handful of classes in a practical subject so you have something to fall back on in case things don’t work out. Take, for example, a guy in my class who kept switching between a Computer Science and Painting major. Besides that, he applied his knowledge by building websites and working at the school’s TV network. This guy would have been able to immediately step into any number of entry-level jobs.

Don’t Let Fear Stop You From Being Who You Are

There’s more than one way of making correct choices, and I’m going to celebrate anyone who lives their life based on their own values and dreams and interests. That’s what makes the world interesting to me. Not sameness, but difference. The important thing is to not always worry about making the right choices, but to not let the fear of making the wrong ones stop you from being who you are.

There’s more than one path to success, and sometimes the one that’s right for you is full of ambiguity. It might not take you on a neat line from A to B and then to C. Sometimes you go backwards, sometimes you skip ahead. A lack of direction can be a blessing in disguise, because it can open up your world. If you have the courage to take one small step in any direction, it can lead you to places you could have never imagined…but only if you trust yourself.

How did you choose your field of study or major? Knowing what you know now, would you have chosen differently? If you majored in something “worthless,” how did you parlay that into a successful career?

Feature Image: Unsplash

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