College, Careers, and Choosing Your Path Reply

online1We’ve seen several articles over the past weeks focusing on college choices as they relate to career success, including which majors lead to the highest and lowest incomes after graduation and whether or not the country’s oft-discussed shortage of STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Math) majors is actually an issue. My colleague, Brendan Conway, examined both of those topics on this very blog last week – be sure to check out his insightful work here and here.

Today, I want to draw your attention to an article from Forbes that I came across this morning. The piece, written by Deborah Jacobs, certainly has a captivating title – “How One Millennial With A Liberal Arts Degree Landed A Six-Figure Job” – and the story itself is quite remarkable. You should head over there and read the whole thing now, since I can’t do it justice with a brief summary here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait – and the points that I want to make will be much easier to understand if you’ve first acquainted yourself with the story. Seriously, go read it now. Your game of Angry Birds can wait and I guarantee you that nothing of vital importance will happen on Facebook or Twitter in the meanwhile.

Read it? Good.

It’s easy to get completely caught up in the money aspect of this story above all else – after all, earning a six-figure salary is an impressive accomplishment for anyone, much less a 25-year-old just out of college. Add in the fact that this isn’t someone who majored in petroleum engineering, nuclear engineering, or pharmacology, but rather European history, and it becomes even more remarkable. To me, however, less fascinating than the huge $$ figures that appear throughout the article is the unique path Matt Rubinger took to achieve his success and how it relates to his college experience.

From my perspective, the most important point that can be taken from Matt’s story is that college does not always have to be a direct stepping-stone to your career. While it usually works out that way, nothing says that you absolutely must follow this path to professional success:

High School -> College (pick a lucrative major) -> Grad School (maybe) -> $$ -> Happiness

It’s easy to read articles like the ones linked to at the beginning of this post and think, “Gosh, if I want to have lots of job options and/or ones that earn me good money, I guess I’d better major in X.” And though that’s one way to achieve professional and financial security – sometimes – it’s definitely not the only way. Moreover, there’s more, much more, to college than just majoring in something that you hope will help you make big bucks down the line. After all, look at Matt’s example. By the time he was applying to college he had already built significant professional and financial success and probably, if he wanted to, could have simply skipped college and found an alternative way to continue growing as a businessman. At very least, you likely would expect someone like him to pick a major that applied to his established focus, something like economics, business, or management,

Instead, however, Matt chose to attend Vanderbilt and study European history, possibly the last subject you would think of when identifying probable majors for a rising star in the entrepreneurial and business worlds. He continued to work throughout college, even taking a single semester off to focus full-time on his profession, but still ultimately graduated on time with the rest of his class.

The article says pretty much nothing about Matt’s college years beyond a brief mention that he was a “good student,” so we don’t know details on the experience. To me, though, it doesn’t seem like an individual as motivated, hardworking, and successful as Matt Rubinger would spend time and effort on something if it did not benefit or fulfill him in some way. Matt chose to attend college even having already laid the groundwork for a successful career, chose to major in something completely separate from that career, and chose to complete that degree even though it required him to divide his time between school and work. That, to me, says a lot. It says that Matt found college worthwhile, even if it wasn’t directly contributing to his business growth or earning potential.

Matt’s story is obviously unique – few people are going to achieve as much success as he has during their lives, much less by their twenty-fifth birthday. But beyond the dollar figures, there’s an important lesson for everyone here. Actually, there are many lessons, many of which are clichéd yet still wise. Lessons that would be right at home in pretty much any graduation speech ever, like:

Follow your passions. Work hard. Challenge the status quo. Take risks. Build relationships. Keep an open mind. Don’t fear rejection. And many others.

Now while all of these are valuable, whether you’re an aspiring artist or stockbroker, the lesson from this article I want to emphasize above all else is this: there is no one correct or guaranteed path to success (financial or otherwise), fulfillment, and happiness. So while articles will constantly be written claiming to show precisely which college majors will ultimately earn you the most money down the road, don’t forget that at least one European history major from Vanderbilt is currently pulling in a significantly higher salary than virtually every petroleum engineering, nuclear engineering, and pharmacology major out there.

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