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Should Your Major Be Your Passion?

Passion PlaysGrand Project

I’m proud to announce that as of this afternoon, I’m officially caught up with the reader e-mail I received during my recent vacation. While working through the final batch of these messages today, I came across a student, from the University of Melbourne, who mentioned the following in the middle of a longer question:

Yes, this particular major isn’t my passion. However, my studies are funded by my disciplinarian father who insists…

What caught my attention was his use of “passion.” I hear this term often from students in reference to their selections of college majors. (They’ll apologize or lament that they aren’t following their true passions, before moving on to enumerate the specific issues that trouble them.)

In an earlier post, I tackled passion in the context of job hunting, noting:

Passion is generated by extended exposure to something that [eventually] becomes an important part of your life. It’s not some magic score assigned to each job that describes, with great accuracy, how happy you’ll immediately become if you follow that path

Today, I want to argue that this same idea applies to your path through college. As just mentioned, many students are crippled by their fear that they haven’t discovered a major they feel passionately about.

My retort: forget passion!

In the context of college, passion is really just the feeling of having mastered something that you don’t hate. Recall, students come to hate subjects only if they feel like they were pressured into them. Therefore, your challenge is reduced to choosing a course of study for intrinsic reasons. Here’s the important thing: They don’t have to be deep intrinsic reasons — simply deciding after a freshman seminar, for example, that a certain subjects seems “kind of interesting,” is enough. What matters is that it was you who thought it was kind of interesting, not your dad, or some flawed idea about how the job market will later evaluate your record.

And when it comes to the “mastering” part of this equation, of course, look no further than the A* strategy. By giving yourself the time needed to really conquer this (intrinsically motivated) major, you’ll eventually develop a deep sense of connection and satisfaction with your studies.

There’s no magic perfect choice for you — just the right effort invested for the right reasons.


Update from 7/14/09: I have a box of galley copies of the red book that feature the little known, original non-red cover that was replaced by the publication date. I need to get rid of these before I move next month. Let me know if you have a cool idea for how I might do this.

32 thoughts on “Should Your Major Be Your Passion?”

  1. I understand that you don’t really believe in an instant passion and to a certain extent I agree with this statement but what if you understood two subject to an equivalent level of proficiency – that is you received similar grades for both subjects, but you spent a lot more time thinking about one of the topics and not the other spontaneously. Wouldn’t that indicate that you had a greater passion for one subject compared to the other.

  2. In the context of college, passion is really just the feeling of having mastered something that you don’t hate.

    I would say that’s true most of the time. I’m one of those people who goes slightly against the Zen Valedictorian grain by double majoring, but I really love my second major – Religion. I would consider it my passion, certainly. I’m not sure if I agree with the definition given above, at least for me, concerning this major. But this is true about my other major, International Relations. It’s definitely something I hate least. (Interestingly, I will also point out that I do not plan to do anything directly with either of my majors in the future.)

    As for the books, might you be able to do a Study Hacks giveaway? I don’t know if your publisher would allow this, but perhaps you could have a post where people offer up their own study hacks. You could pick the best ones/honorable mentions, and ship them out, further spreading the word.

  3. I agree with the post for the most part. Many students find themselves in college. They are unsure of what they actually want in life or what they are passionate about. So choosing a major that was interesting to you in a previous class is a great choice for many students.

    Dhea “I understand that you dont believe in an instant passion” I completely agree with the statement that if you spend more time on one subject than another than that may be your passion.

    There are other students that have realised there interests before they entered college and immersed themselves into it developing their passion for it. In this case I believe these students do choose a major they are passionate about, rather than somewhat interested in.

  4. Generally I agree that it’s not magic, but two caveats: I think the personal history behind subject choices makes a pretty big difference even if it doesn’t involve real exposure to the subject (people who become cancer researchers because their favourite aunt died of pancreatic cancer etc.) and I don’t think mastery is necessarily a prerequisite to ‘passion’ (lots of music majors who are not especially good, who have other options, and who know they’ll never come close to making it still go to music school for the joy of it)

  5. What about choosing something you believe in? I think it’s important to select a subject which you think is relevant and valuable.

    This might be more important when selecting a thesis topic though.

  6. Cal–
    Why not donate that box of books to a program for disadvantaged / 1st generation college students at a public college or university in a state affected by recent budget cuts? Especially if you know (or could contact) an administrator who believes in the Straight-A approach. It would be a community service to students who can’t afford to waste time (or money) with the ineffective study strategies so common in academic culture.

    Perhaps your readers could nominate worthy programs?

  7. I’ve found that you can be interested in a topic or an activity, but not necessarily a major (because you may not enjoy all the required classes). For example, I am much more interested in sociology of education than sociology of science. Careerwise, teaching is one of my favorite activities. Since I detest having to discipline disruptive students, however, I prefer not to teach K-12, where the frequency of student disruptions trumpets that in college.

    I recommend that people keep a mental or written list of topics and activities that tickle them. Take note especially when you find yourself saying: “This is so interesting!” “I love doing this!” “This is so much FUN!” When you truly love something, you will know it.

  8. Why not donate that box of books to a program for disadvantaged / 1st generation college students at a public college or university in a state affected by recent budget cuts?

    If anyone has such a program to suggest, please send me an e-mail. So far, I’ve had one suggestion come in — for a program at Princeton — but am willing to hear about more.

    I’ve found that you can be interested in a topic or an activity, but not necessarily a major (because you may not enjoy all the required classes).

    That’s a good way of looking at things.

  9. One more thing: I think it’s very important to follow the advice discussed here at Study Hacks. It’s certainly hard to feel passionate about something when you’re rushing to meet deadlines!

  10. I think all too many college students feel like (and are made to feel like) picking a major is a really important thing. Except for perhaps the hard sciences (and even then I don’t think an undergrad major is all that important), your major really has very little bearing on what you’ll end up doing.

    I got back from a summer in China after my sophomore year, realized I really, really wanted to go back, and knew that the only way I could work legally was to have a four-year degree. So I picked political science because I’ve always liked politics, busted my tail, and was back in China in 18 months. Other than a lingering appreciation for the German electoral system, I don’t really have use for very much of what I learned, and my degree was instead a tool that I used to get something else that I wanted.

    I suspect that, in retrospect, most people’s degrees are like that, though the choice of what to study seems paramount when you’re actually making it.

  11. I always thought medicine was my passion, I want to become a doctor and that is my passion. But I was in doubt last year, I am someone who is interested in many things and I was going to like studies on the brain is also great. Wasn’t that better for me to do, because self-improvement, brain tricks and everything among it is my passion?
    No. I start september first with my study Medicine at the University of Groningen, because that is what I want to do. So I don’t follow what I consider as my passion now, I’m following something I wanted for years. Why? I worked in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and I liked it really. I want to work over there later, not in some sort of lab..
    (But now I want to become a neurologist.)

  12. Great point Cal.

    I think the problem is the word passion. It’s been hyped up about passion with your job so much that people think that if they basically aren’t having an orgasm of work-related bliss every time they start churning away at a task, that they’re missing out.

    Work is work. Hopefully, you have the skill at something that you find meaningful so that you have a quiet sense of dignity about it. But don’t expect it to be an amusement park every day.


  13. The more technical majors scared me. I thought I was a mathy-sciency-compsciy kid in high school, but when I came to college I saw all these really really smart kids who had done crazy things in high school (like International Math Olympiad, Google summer of code, stuff like that) that I couldn’t even touch! I got intimidated and thought I wasn’t good enough for a technical major, so I went into the sciences. Now, I kind of regret it, but I’m still not sure whether I would have survived with a technical major.

    I feel like a lot of it is having the confidence to believe that you’re just as smart as the others, and, with a little hard work and good study skills you can do just as well 😛

  14. Hm, what is it? I think that you need to first identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then choose a major you find interesting that can lead you into a career that utilizes you in the best way possible. That way, because you are the best and you are interested, you will be successful. And I don’t think it matters how you get into your field. As long as your struggles in your major can be overcame and you find your major to be valuable by what you value in your life.

    I think people who are pressured into majors and end up not enjoying it are told to do that because of such-and-such. When it turns out the student doesn’t have the same values as the person making the suggestion.

    I’m only scared about passion because people major in their passion then they end up not getting work. That is… they spent 4 years in college to get a job that doesn’t require 4 years in college.

  15. I’m only scared about passion because people major in their passion then they end up not getting work. That is… they spent 4 years in college to get a job that doesn’t require 4 years in college.

    You could get a good job and then get laid off in a few years. That’s why we should try to choose the best we can and not be overly obsessive about picking perfect majors (as discussed in Cal’s recent post) or careers. You might end up in a good situation due to hard work, luck, timing, social network, or a combination of the aforementioned factors; or you might find yourself getting training for a new career down the road.

  16. Cal,
    This post seems to suggest that it’s all between the ears and that you can pick any topic (or job) and develop a passion for it. Would you confirm that? Actually, I have difficulty believing that. Towards the end of my engineering study, I kind of lost interest, or rather, I discovered something more interesting and many engineering courses seemed all of a sudden so dull and irrelevant. Perhaps the magic, romantic notion of ‘passion’ does exist, after all?

  17. Towards the end of my engineering study, I kind of lost interest, or rather, I discovered something more interesting and many engineering courses seemed all of a sudden so dull and irrelevant

    You should read my post on when dream majors turn into nightmares. One of the big ideas is that the process of mastering something eventually becomes hard, and, when it becomes, hard, it no longer seems fun and other things seem infinitely more rewarding. So long as you originally chose the path for intrinsic reasons, however, pushing through to real mastery can reward you with real passion.

    Perhaps the semantic issue here is confusing short-term interest for deep-seated appreciation for a pursuit?

  18. Why you think one hate what he do when he master it?. He can consider it a challenge despite the fact that it’s hard.

    Thomas Edison tried many times to invent the light bulb. But,he said:
    “I’ve never spent a day working, I was just playing”.

    But, mastering can be somewhat boring. But, it’s not so boring that you will hate it.

    Don’t you agree with me. Finally, thanks for all your great posts. Waiting for your replay…

  19. Hi Cal,

    Thanks for your reply! However, the issue is more subtle than it may seem. Before I provide the details, let me first explain why I’m bringing it up: not because I need help (I already graduated…), rather because it seems interesting to confront your (sensible) theory with an experience that seems to contradict it. Here we go (FYI, I live in Europe):

    – year 1: I choose engineering after some parental pressure (my 2nd choice, after agriculture)
    – years 1-2: I am probably the only student who loves every single course with no exceptions. I do not regret having forgone agriculture.
    – year 3: Time to choose a specialization; I choose an alternative to my preferred specialization, for strategic reasons (supposedly more creative work after graduation; my own choice)
    – year 3: an entrepreneurial side activity gets out of control, I skip lessons and I have to retake exams in Summer. Some of the courses were said to be impossible to study all by yourself but I manage. I say to myself: what a pity I don’t have more time to properly study them, this is hugely interesting!
    – year 4: with the side activity scaled back, I focus on courses again, and for the first time some of them bore me (seem meaningless, a waste of time). Others are still super-interesting, but their number decreases. No relation between course difficulty and my interest in it. Procrastination appears.
    – year 5: no interesting courses, except for one. Deep procrastination. But I graduate.
    – start working in a different career (business). Feels better.

    My personal best guess of the underlying cause: a combination of 1. an increasing number of topics that had no inherent appeal to me, and 2. the discovery of a greener pasture (business, which would become my career).

  20. I agree with the point that work is work whether one is passionate about it or not. A perfect example of this is ballet dancer. They dedicate their whole life (no exaggeration there) to one thing that they love. Dancing. But behind all that frills and en pointe shoes, there is the pain of bruised and crooked feet and constant fatigue and hunger, not to mention the stress involved. To be really good, one needs to have passion, but without work, there really is no point in having passion.

  21. This is a personal opinion”
    My father picked my major for me. Partially because there was no particular major that I was inclining towards.
    Initially had a mental block that there was no way I would like the major I was doing as my father had picked it for me. However, gradually, I decided to become patient and focus on learning on the major and thinking positively of the major. It was only then that I realized that it was because of the wonders of the knowlegde passed by that major that my father had asked me to pick it.He had done the same major in college and had felt that if I pursued it too, there would be a lot to learn(my father is a firm believer in learning in anything done and taken up in life)
    In short, dont dismiss your parent’s opinion. Almost always parents have a very good reason on why they ask their child to pick one major over another. Give it thought, and more than thought give it patience. MAKE SURE there is no mental block against your parent’s major choice. Only when you feel that you have given it plenty of time to that major(and heart) to that major can you decide if you like. Give it time with an OPTIMISTIC mind and see how the major guides you. Almost always, if you get your heart to like the major, the mind automatically learns more and likes it. Thats how true passion develops. It’s impossible to hate knowledge, regardless of how boring the major may be. All it takes it a positive mind to approach the major and to build a liking for the major in your heart and you are bound to like the major. I know this is cliched, but its all about getting yourself to be patient and love it, and then you will excel in it.
    Parents often know about their children’s abilities more than the child himself and always have their welfare in ming

  22. I agree with the overall sentiment here that the college major is both under- and over-stated. College and university student affairs folks realize that the content of students’ learning will be obsolete in roughly five years. So mastery of the material is not really the point. Rather it’s a powerful example of “how” v. “what.” The study of a major subject in college provides opportunity to develop intellectual and practical skills that would take many, many years of trial and error to learn otherwise, regardless of whether one chooses to study philosophy, biology, art history, or business. In the same vein, the process of *deciding* on a major is itself an excellent research project, come-to-jesus moment of self-reflection, and practice in tough decision making.

  23. I am quite sure that people are not understanding the word passion. I’ve felt a great deal of interest in a lot of things when I studied them, but I relised they were short-term because my interest mostly developed from the knowledge that I was fnding the area easy, and that it seem s to fit me. But such things come and go. You might start learning more and realise it’s not the thing for you, just because it wasn’t as easy, and thus ‘fun’ as it was before. Now psychlogy comes along, and you review the reation betwen you and that subject area, and either decide that the subject was terrible and boring anyway, or that it isn’t the one for you, or like the more optimistic, that you are just relaxing and not putting in the effort. Im currently doing History of Art now, and I’ve always been great at art, and have rarely had to put up with the feeling that Im not good enough or will have no hope. There were other things I considered, but I just wouldn’t be good enough and I WILL feel doomed if i studied. So a lot of this ‘passion’ thing has something to do with the belief that you’re good -or not. You will feel you’re flying high if the subject proves to be in your capacity, or if someone is constantly praising you.

  24. So a lot of this ‘passion’ thing has something to do with the belief that you’re good -or not. You will feel you’re flying high if the subject proves to be in your capacity, or if someone is constantly praising you.

    An astute point. I’ve lost track of the pre-meds who write me after their first hard orgo class to report that medicine maybe isn’t their passion. They’re confusing hardness for lack of connection. My article on dream majors becoming nightmares is a good discussion of these points.

  25. So what if you were forced into a University Degree by your family? Now what?! How do i survive now that I absolutely despise the course and want to drop out but have already invested 3 long years into the program!?

  26. Nice post tbh ? im kinda in a situation where I like both art and math . I wanna try fine art as fine art is always the thing that makes me want to learn more about it . I used to suck at art but then i kept trying and trying at it ? makes me want to con?ti?nve art .but then people around me kept saying i shouldnt pick fine art as i will have a hard time finding a job after i graduate ? its useless and etc. As for math , I’m good at math , I like how math solves problems for the world but then I just don’t feel as interested in it than art . Although when I learn math ( still learning ), I have that “I can do it / die hard ” drive , makes me want to keep on continuing . Sooo basically I’m quite stuck now


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