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advice to ambitious young people #1
"how do i pick a major?" from an international incoming freshman @ ivy league
spending hundreds of hours on coaching calls with ambitious young people, i'd thought i'd start open sourcing some perspective like matt mochary did with his coaching in public methods that act like recipes. this allows others to test to see what works for them.
this series will be a mix of playbooks and dialogue depending on the context and discussion.
"how do i pick a major?" from an incoming, international ivy league freshman
here’s more background info for this post: today i had a coaching call with an incoming international student starting their first year at an ivy league school.
their main question was “how do i pick a major?” and this is too common of an occurrence to ignore. the current education system is not set up to help people explore what they are interested in nor allow them to test different skills to see what they'd enjoy most. it's absurd to assume our 17 year old selves know what our future selves want to focus on, let alone understand how the world is changing.
my take is to find a skillset that enables exploration for different kinds of problem solving as you figure out what you may want to do.
here’s how the conversation went:
them: "i'm going into my first year exploring different ideas. i know i want to have an impact, but i don't know exactly what to major in. what do you recommend?"
me: "first, think about what you might want to do after graduating. what's that look like?"
them: "i want to have an impact in either the environment or in healthcare. what excites me most is working at the intersection of different topics. i could see myself starting something here when i get back from school to make a difference."
me: "my recommendation is rather than look at applications of impact, start with training a skillset you'd enjoy. this will lead to what role and what positions you could see yourself making an impact in later. developing a skillset helps you test out different kinds of problems.
for example, studying computer science is one way to learn transferrable skills that will help you build software tools. with current advancements in AI, there are many industries and countries that will need help implementing effective solutions in years to come.
for me, i chose architecture in 2011 because i liked to design new things. looking forward it was the only major that combined different perspectives: science, art, engineering, and design.
each year i got to take architecture studio classes that explored real world problems while training a breadth of skillsets, like understanding new cultures, new materials, coming up with new ideas, visual design for modeling or rendering, pitching ideas, giving + receiving feedback, and abstracting complex concepts across people with different backgrounds.
i liked doing all of those things. i’ve always been a generalist.
them: "did you know what you wanted to do after you graduated?”
me: “no, honestly my first guess was architecture. but i really didn’t have a full picture of what that meant.
it only took me a year for me to see it wouldn’t be architecture. i had talked to different older students with internship experiences, different professionals, and consumed all content i could asking if this would be the right path for me.
from there, when i knew the answer was no, it was 2 years of exploring other options: sustainable design, engineering research, and product development at different schools on campus.
i stayed in architecture because it was the first time i felt like i found people similar to me who were both creative and technical. but i quickly explored other ways to apply those skills to see what kind of role i did want after graduating.
the best exploration didn’t actually happen in the classroom. i learned the most from taking on opportunities outside of class, like doing design research with a professor for pop up bamboo structures in developing countries for healthcare clinics, or working an internship with a startup working on a web platform for art museums.
that really was the litmus test for me: use the summer to try new things, have side projects to learn new skills, and i found my way to things i was excited to apply. it wasn’t an obvious path moving forward because i was taking my best guess at the time.”
them: “well, what surprised you most?”
me: there was one time where i thought i finally “had it.” i was going from design research in materials to ux/ui design for a product team building an app. i was excited because i thought this “was it.” being a designer in a startup was going to be what i’d do after graduation.
what i didn’t realize was 1) i didn’t inherently like the work of pixel pushing (this was way before figma) and 2) i was so curious i kept asking the founders questions around branding, customers, what problems we were solving, why, and product.
that was a great side project as i figured out how to take technical ideas working with a front end and back end engineer and translate them into designs. but what was more helpful was that i wanted to do more.
i would not have known at the time that would lead me to accelerators and enjoying multiple founders and students.
them: “interesting. i got it. anything else i should think about when thinking about picking my major this year?”
me: “figure out what’s important for you and weigh different options for majors against each other. for some people, it’s the structure of the classes they want to take. see if the program you are looking at is how you would imagine your next few years.
for others, it’s the chance to do research or work on projects. see how normal that is for your major.
and for me, it was being around some of the most driven and hard working students on campus. each major had it’s own vibe.”
takeaways to summarize how to pick a major
ask yourself what do you want to do after graduation. this helps align longer term thinking in role and team with short term resources and projects.
use summer experiences and opportunities outside of class (interning at a startup, doing research in a lab, or working on your own project) to test that hypothesis for what you want to do.
focus on developing skills first to see if you enjoy the day to day of that work. h/t to @calnewport for so good they cant ignore you (a book i highly recommend)
side projects are the best way to jumpstart building a new skill. ship something. seek feedback.
figure out what's important to you and use that to make decisions (ex. curriculum, people, extra opportunities like co-ops or research).
that’s it for v1. if you liked this post give a heart or comment below. and if you have feedback or ideas on how to improve, send me a note on linkedin as im always looking for ways to make this writing more impactful for readers like you.