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How to be human: how am I supposed to decide my career in college?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

I'm currently in my first year of college, and I am a pre-medical student. Over these last couple of weeks I've begun to realize that I'm not really interested in medicine and biology. I'm open to changing my major, but I've become really overwhelmed with all the options. I have many interests ranging from politics to art, science and law. I've been taking different classes trying to figure out what I want to do, but it's been really stressing me out. I see my friends that have plans for med school or law school or something else, and I just feel really lost. I also don't know how to tell my family that I no longer want to pursue a career in medicine because they've been really encouraging. Since I'm a first-generation college student, they've been really adamant about me having a plan on what I want to do in the future.

Any advice?

S.

Hey S.,

Congratulations! Your family must be so proud of you. But yep, with that pride is gonna come a lot of worry and pressure.

Yours is one of those letters that seems so simple but is deceptively tricky. My first inclination is to say QUIT PRE-MED! DON'T DO IT! Honestly that's my second inclination too.

But look, I can't tell you you shouldn't be pre-med because who knows, maybe after a year or two you'll say to yourself, "Hey, how weird, I do like it after all." Or you'll realize the thing you want to do is go become a doctor in Haiti, and you'll write me and tell me about the incredible good you're doing in the world.

I can tell you three things, though.

It is totally normal to get to college and realize you have zero idea what you want to study, let alone do with the rest of your life. In fact, it's one of the most normal things I can think of. Yes, I know, your friends seem to have it all together, and I bet a few of them really do know what they want and will go on to be happy lawyers and doctors and business people. I also bet more than a few of them are composing letters just like yours to friends, family, therapists, guidance counselors, and maybe even other advice columnists.

Here's a thing a lot of people don't like to admit. That totally normal feeling? It doesn't go away after college. There are three great lies about adulthood. Along with "you only get acne when you're a teenager" and "people grow up and stop acting like high school assholes," is the lie that the feeling of OH GOD WHAT DO I WANT TO DO WHEN I GROW UP does not actually go away, even when you are "grown up."

Again, there are certainly people who seem very happy and satisfied with where they've found themselves in life, but I'm talking about the wide vast swath of humans who are like, "Sure, I'm a successful lawyer but god, I wish I'd followed my dream of becoming a baker." Or writers who are like, "Why did I do this and not become a doctor?" Or doctors who are like, "Why did I go to medical school when my passion is making robots?"

Some of them do their day jobs and make time to do the things they love as hobbies or as freelance gigs. Some of them do those things they love and find themselves, over time, on a circuitous path that gets them a job they truly love but never could have planned. Some of them shrug their shoulders and throw themselves extra into their day jobs to find satisfaction there. Some of them do none of these things and instead fall into a sort of unsatisfied malaise, which they reveal in pissy outbursts on the internet. Some of them switch careers multiple times, because it turns out that when you live for 80 or 90 years, there's more time to do a lot more stuff than you think there is when you're 19 or 20 or about to turn 30 and haven't made partner or shipped your app or published a novel or been on a list of notables yet.

The whole thing about college is you can use it to figure out what you want to do for this first phase of your life. And even if your plan is not as defined as "become a pediatrician" or "join a boutique law firm," you can still have a plan, one that allows you to explore but also be a hopefully independent self-sufficient human with some kind of salary. You can also have a plan to help reassure them you're learning valuable stuff and plan to let them know if you end up needing a fifth year, there's a way you'll be able to pay for it.

Here then is my advice to you, dear S. Sit down and make a list with three columns. One will be all the things you find interesting and are curious about. One will be jobs you think sound pretty neat. And one will be skills you think might be useful to have when it comes to finding a job. You are going to look at this list and you're going to create your plan, which you will then present to your parents.

"Parents," you'll say, "I know you were pretty psyched on me doing pre-med. Unfortunately, I'm in all these classes and I don't find them interesting or enjoyable. I don't mean they're too much work, I mean I feel like there's something out there I could do with my life that I'd be dedicated to much more than being a doctor, and I'd like to figure out what that is. But I recognize that could sound pretty unstructured to you guys, and I don't want you to worry that I'm not doing anything productive that will help me find a good job after school. So here's my plan. I'm going to take some classes outside of pre-med in these subjects that I find interesting. I'll give myself a year to explore those, but I will also take classes in this subject [finance, computer programming, whatever sounds practical but also not deathly boring to you] so I can learn some skills. Maybe I'll even end up minoring or double majoring in that. I'll keep an eye out for internships that will help me, whether getting a job or going on to grad school. I know you guys are worried, and I don't want to stress you out, but I also don't want to be so miserable that going to college ends up being a terrible experience."

Parents, I have learned over a number of decades getting to know my own, are most often worried when they have no idea what's going on. Yes, they also worry about everything else, but working with them can help mitigate at least the "We're out of the loop and have no say" worry. Some parents want to make sure you do what they want, like be a doctor or (in my case) not be a doctor. But what most parents want you to do (and I know this is true of mine) is be independent, happy, successful, financially comfortable, and living a good life. So work with your parents. Don't go to them with big fat frustrations but no plan. Show them what a great adult you're turning into, an adult who comes prepared with reasonable, workable plans. Then go figure out what the heck you want to do in this next exciting phase of your life.

Lx