Thursday, January 28, 2010

Is your life's path determined at 17?

(The choices that young people need to make are daunting, and possibly made too early.)

When we were kids, I distinctly remember asking my younger brother what he wanted to be when he grew up.  We were sitting on the basement stairs at the time, so he looked around the basement, and answered: "A clothes dryer".  I laughed at him, and attempted to explain that was impossible.  He was a young human being and when he grew up he would just be an older human being, but what would he do for a job as an adult?  I'm sure he didn't understand my logic at the time.  But I have often wondered at the perspective that allowed this young boy to think that he could become a mechanical, inanimate object later in life.

Last night, I had a drink with four of my former undergrad students, all of whom will be graduating in May.  The conversation focused mostly on what they would be doing after graduation.  They are all very bright students and they had been applying to various grad schools around the country.  Should I work on population ecology modeling with Professor X at Penn State or on a topic somewhat less mathematical with Professor Y at University of Georgia?  Should I study fish management at Oregon State or do a study on white-tailed deer at Ohio State?  Should I work on obtaining a M.S. degree now, or go straight for the Ph.D.?  Should I become a clothes dryer or an upright vacuum sweeper?  The conversation with my brother from more than 50 years ago came streaming back into my head.  Was the topic of last night really all that different?

Perhaps the reason I feel somewhat apprehensive about the topic of our beer banter was because I am not at all sure that I would follow the same path again in my professional life, knowing what I know now.  I would likely not go into academia, would not get a Ph.D., and would not have focused so intently on wild animals and ecology as I did.  The details of my thinking will eventually end up in another blog; those details are not germane to my point here.  I have the benefit of hindsight, and these young people do not.  They are pursuing what they THINK will make them happy, but they can not possibly know for sure until after they have spent many more years working on degrees, getting a position, and working at that job for some time.  By then, they will be in their 40s, and it will be tough to turn back.  "You rolls the dice, and you takes your chances", as that old saying goes.

The problem is that these students haven't lived enough yet.  The world has so much to offer, and there are so many interesting challenges and opportunities.  They are bright enough and ambitious enough that they could choose any path they wanted, but they can't possibly know now about more than 1-2% of those potential paths.  They are following the logical direction based on what they chose as an undergraduate major at university.  Think about that.  A 17-year old high school senior picks a major for college based on what they think their interests are at that time, and it generally predicts their life's path for the next 40 years.  Astounding!

I'm even willing to wager my next Social Security check that if these four students did something else in the world for the next two years, that at least two of them would not proceed down the route they are now planning to take.  They might still decide to attend grad school, but the thesis topic they chose, or the major prof they selected, or the degree they pursued would be different than it will now be.  And then, their professional life would become different than it will now become.

Students who read this essay may be disturbed by these ideas, but I think they know there is some wisdom here somewhere.  And by reading this, it will probably only increase some doubts they already have.  I make no apology, because my role in life is largely to make people question.  I guess that is the teenage decision I made all those years ago.  My only advice is to realize that what you currently know or think is only a tiny fraction of all you could know or think, and you don't need to be a prisoner of those limited thoughts.  Perhaps, becoming a ball pene hammer would not be nearly as rewarding as becoming a 5/8 inch socket wrench, but you can't know the answer to that until you have tried them both.  My advice: take the time to explore, investigate, and experiment broadly before you Super Glue your life's map on your chest.


  1. Exactly why I'm going to live at the Gavin household after college for awhile. Gotta figure out what I really want to do!

  2. I hear ya Mark. We could become a half-way house for college grads who are "unsure".

  3. When I was younger I used to ay I wanted to be a leopard. That obviously hasn't worked out too well. I half agree with you and half don't though. You say that if we were making these decisions two years from now some of us would choose a different path. But what's the significance of two years? What about five? Or ten? It seems to imply that there is one "true" path that an individual should take, and all the rest are just less than optimum. But I also know how differently things could have turned out, even in getting me to where I am now. What if I hadn't been relegated to the NtRes department? What if 310 wasn't a required class? What if I hadn't been able to fit the MARK class into my schedule? I came to Cornell wanting to do something very different than what I ended up doing, and actually I use this example to explain to potential graduate advisers why I'm not going directly for a PhD. I'm allowing for the possibility that something similar will happen, and the discrete degrees would allow me to adjust my trajectory. So I agree that we should acknowledge this. But I also think you just have to make choices anyway, otherwise you can always use the excuse "well I haven't lived enough yet."

  4. And aren't you on vacation? Is Zeus the one actually writing these?

  5. Franny, these are tough issues. I guess I am saying that the more you have experienced in life, the more likely you are to end up on the path that, at the end, you conclude was a good one. But you are correct in that you could always wait longer, get more data, and then take THAT path. Maybe the approach is that if you have real doubts, then you are almost certainly not on the right path. If you have NO doubts, you are probably closer to the true path for you.

    I helped Zeus write this blog. He's pretty philosphical, no?

  6. It's like using adaptive management and Bayesian updating to make life decisions.

    He talked and you typed, right?

  7. I think also that given all there is to see and do in the world, I am not sure I would spend as much time in school when young. I remember questioning that at the time. I was 32 when I finished my Ph.D. Would not do that again.

  8. That's why i went into the Peace Corps after leaving Cornell...and went from NTRES 210 to Nursing 101!

  9. I started grad school at almost 40 and got on the tenure track at almost 50 and would not make the same choice again. I'm not sure we ever know enough to make the right decision. If I decide to quit a 55 and grow organic artichokes for a living, I'll check back in....