Double Take: Should passion or practicality decide what you major in?

Dear Dr. Wes and Gabe: You recently tweeted from @wescrenshawphd: “I push the practical in #college major selection because passion is rarely lacking at this juncture.” I usually love your tips, but on this one, really? Don’t kids have their entire working lives to have the passion beaten from them?

Wes: After World War II, the U.S. government decided to give back to veterans a small measure of what they gave us on the battlefield by paying for their education, and a whole generation of young people became college students. We forget that this was a really radical idea at the time — that society should be interested in the higher education of its young adults and might vest itself in that education beyond what resources those students and their families could provide.

Double Take columnists Gabe Magee and Dr. Wes Crenshaw

Over the next 50 years, that ideal has grown to encompass not just veterans but every student graduating from high school, to the point that we are now discussing free public education for at least the first two years of college. That’s great. I’m a huge proponent of higher education, though I find that anything given for free is taken less seriously than if one writes a check him or herself. When that purchase comes from someone other than the student — the taxpayer, an endowment, or a parent’s college account — the student should expect a reasonable discussion of both what the student wants out of education, and what he or she is going to give back, most notably the ability to live and thrive independently.

By definition, that means one’s education cannot only be about passion. It also has to be practical in offering a sustainable financial future. If you don’t like that idea, please take a look at skyrocketing student debt, a fair portion of which is spent on degrees from private and public institutions that do not easily turn a paycheck for the graduate.

We’ve debated this many times in this column, and I remain resolute: There is never a lack of heartfelt passion when it comes to major and career selection. Why wouldn’t there be? Who doesn’t want to do what he or she wants to do? The trick is figuring out how to bend those dreams into a realistic framework for life success, allowing one a better future than perpetual dependency on a partner, parents or the government.

You can call that “beating the passion out of kids,” if you wish. I would instead call it guiding teens to find a balance between pragmatism and desire. Or you could simply call it “growing up.”

Gabe: This question hits a little close to home. The next few years of my life will be spent trying to reach a balance between practical and passionate majors and career choices. There’s little anyone my age can do to escape that reality, with the twin choruses of “Where are you going to college next year?” and “What are you going to major in?” sung out whenever you run into a family member. I shouldn’t complain about people caring about my future, but a lot of people in my age range feel this “choice” constantly looming over their heads.

Dr. Wes and I differ on how people should make this choice. While he values pragmatism over passion, I think that it varies from person to person. Those lucky enough to have a choice will each choose different paths for different reasons. Some will follow their passion relentlessly. Others will choose a career that rewards them financially but not personally. Their reasons differ from person to person based on their upbringing, values and ethics. I think this is a good system since everyone wants vastly different things from life.

For those who have this choice of pragmatism or fulfillment ahead of them, I would offer a suggestion. In an ideal world, what you value would dictate what you strive for. Think long and hard about which end is more appealing to you, and head for it. Disaster can happen when you don’t fulfill your values.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not: Successful Living with ADD & ADHD.” Learn about his writing and practice at Gabe Magee is a Bishop Seabury Academy senior. Send your confidential 200-word question to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.