Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Twice a month, he’ll answer reader questions about life, love and what matters most. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
When I was a kid and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never knew what to say. My parents would always jump in and say there was no rush to figure out my life at six years old.
But now I’m 20. I’ve avoided making a decision about what I want to do with my life as long as I can, but I have to pick a major soon and choose a direction and I’m terrified. What if I make the wrong choice and pick the wrong major? What if the decision I make at 20 influences the rest of my life in a horrible way?
I find myself feeling jealous of people who are certain about their plans for the future. Most of my friends just seem to know what they want to do — the choice is easy for them. Meanwhile, the very thought that I have to make this decision panics me so much I can barely think about it, which panics me even more because I don’t have much time left. I really want to make the best decision for my life, but I don’t even know where to begin.
My family tells me I should go with my gut and choose what I think will make me happiest. But I still have no idea what will make me happy. Every idea I have comes with too many doubts and questions — absolutely nothing seems to hit me as being right. This decision will have a huge impact on my life, and I can’t afford to make the wrong choice. I know I’m only in college and real life starts after, but if I’m so frozen over choosing a major, how will I ever decide what job to get when I graduate?
My question is: When you decide on a professional path in life, how do you know whether you’re making the right choice? How do you get over the fear that you might be making a terrible mistake?
Seriously Anxious about My Major
[Editor’s note: This letter was edited for clarity and length.]
Dear Seriously Anxious,
I get why you’re panicked, and I get why many high-school graduates and college graduates are also feeling panicked — deciding what to do with your life can be an overwhelming decision.
The first time I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was three-and-a-half-years old, and my answer was, “A T-Rex!”. My aspirations have changed since then — and it’s the same for many college students. In the US, for example, roughly 30 percent of students switch their major at least once and 10 percent switch multiple times.
Things don’t get much more stable after graduation. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between the ages of 18-42, adults switched jobs an average of 10 times or more — and that’s without a pandemic causing people to reevaluate their priorities and reconsider their career choices.
All of which is to say this: You’re putting way too much pressure on yourself to know something you’re not really supposed to know yet. Yes, your friends might think they know what they want to do, but they can’t know for sure because they haven’t done it yet. When I was an undergraduate, the majority of psychology majors knew they wanted to become psychologists. Guess how many psych majors go on to get a PhD in psychology? Four percent. That’s it.
Most people hope to find work they enjoy and find meaningful and that also fits their skill set so they’re actually good at it. Well, it’s actually pretty difficult to assess those things until you get a job in the field and experience it firsthand. Many jobs can be very different once you actually do them.
So, when you say, “I can’t afford to make the wrong choice,” you’re wrong. You can afford to make the wrong choice, and it might be better for you to do so. I say that because there’s evidence to suggest that deciding on a career too early can actually be problematic. A study of two academic systems found that people who specialized early were more likely to switch careers than those who specialized later.
Your goal, when choosing a major or looking for a first job, is merely to begin a process of experimentation in which you assess whether you and the career are a good fit. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds like dating” — bingo! Indeed, we typically date a number of people and have a bunch of relationships before we find someone with whom we want to settle down. The same is true of finding a career: You might need to “date” various subjects and industries before you find the right one.
Now that we’ve clarified the (very low) stakes of choosing the wrong major and why trying out multiple options will help you identify careers that fit you best, let’s talk about how to choose a major when you don’t even have a leading candidate.
Is it difficult to choose a major when you don’t have a strong passion pointing you in a specific direction? Yes, so don’t choose 1 major; choose 10. Instead of trying to guess the one subject you’ll love, list 10 you might not dislike. Anything that holds even a whiff of interest for you should be on the list.
Once you’ve compiled your list, go through and rank your options in order of which you want to try first. Then, start taking classes in those subjects and keep notes about what you like/dislike about each one and which of your skill sets it does/does not utilize. Talk to professors or professionals about jobs in the field and what an actual work day would entail.
If what you discover feels right, keep exploring that field. And if it doesn’t, go to the next option on your list. Keep experimenting after you graduate, and don’t be afraid to change jobs if what you’re doing isn’t for you.
If you’re worried about falling behind other people who know what they want and are already moving along a career path, don’t. Their goal is to follow their passion; yours is to discover what your passions are so you can eventually craft a career around one or more of them.
Seriously, there are no big decisions currently before you — just a series of little ones. Whatever major you declare is nothing more than a placeholder, your first station on a journey of discovery and exploration. Careers span decades, and you might have multiple careers during the course of your life. Taking a few years to find one in which you’ll thrive is more important than rushing into one in which you won’t.
Send your pressing questions about life — about your relationships, your job (or the job you lost), your family (or families), your passions, fears and more — to email@example.com
Watch Guy’s TED Talk on coping with burnout now: