“Follow Your Passion”: Yay or Nay?

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a bind. Somehow, I – notorious dilettante and former student of eleven academic departments – am teaching a course this semester on exploring careers and selecting majors for undecided freshmen and sophomores.


Should I upload this selfie onto the Blackboard site?

And I’m concerned. Not because the syllabus needs retouching or I’m having trouble deciding which pirate version of the Myers-Briggs to administer (for what it’s worth, I’m also eyeing Buzzfeed’s “What Should Your College Major Be Based On Your Food Choices” quiz) — rather, I’m concerned about my somewhat embarrassing buy-in to that largely debunked dictum: follow your passion.

Google the phrase “follow your passion” and you’ll be swamped with results detailing why that all-pervasive piece of advice is worthless. Also, having read and critiqued career counseling theories as part of my Masters program, I get why the idea is not good counsel.

For one, self-actualization is at the tippy top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There is no question that following your passion requires a significant amount of privilege — most people prefer having access to food, water, and shelter first.

Then, there’s the argument that the advice assumes and perpetuates a Western, individualist mindset.  What about international students and other students with ethnic ties to collectivist cultures, who might legitimately prefer pursuing majors/careers which please and provide for their families?

Finally, millennials have mostly wised up (albeit resentfully) to the reality that you can’t “just get a job” with any degree anymore. Hence the jokes about liberal arts majors. (How do you get a liberal arts graduate off your porch? Pay him for the pizza.)

This "millenial falcon" is a little angry. Source

This “millennial falcon” is a little bitter. Source

Still, I cling to a deep-seated optimism about studying and pursuing what one enjoys. I understand that this perspective is a function of my privilege, but it’s also informed by my experience double majoring in a subject I love (French, deemed utterly useless) and a subject I tolerated (economics, for the sake of employability).

Five-and-a-half years later, I can barely read a supply and demand graph, whereas studying French has proven practical in ways I could never have imagined. Broadly, the subject led me to the field of international education, and I owe innumerable professional and personal contacts to a common “French connection.”

So. A part of me wants to throw caution to the wind and urge these impressionable youths to study sculpture, or philosophy, or ancient Greek — whatever fills their hearts or thrills their minds. But the last thing I want is for my propensity to romanticize to blow up in my face (or worse, in the faces of my students).

A book, wine, and cigarettes

E.g., I set up this romanticized tableau my last week in Paris. The smoke blew back in my face, and I ended up giving away the cigarettes.

Consequently, I’ll do my level best to keep my own thoughts out of the matter. After all, I’m also a believer in another cliché: that education is more about asking questions than obtaining answers. Sure, I’ll point my students to the relevant resources and theories and assessments. But it may take them a while to find their academic or professional footing, and that’s truly, deeply okay.

(In any case, for those in a rush, the Buzzfeed quiz can be done within minutes.)


What do you think of the advice to follow your passion? Let me know!


Picking from the Fig Tree: A Look at Choosing Majors in 3 Countries

In Aziz Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He shares this cautionary Sylvia Plath quote:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.


Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether choosing a college major or a career path, or deciding where to live (the question I reconsider every other year), the array of life choices are overwhelming. Since I’m teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to our class as well.

leaning against a barren tree

No figs here, sadly. Just a melancholy undergrad and a barren tree.

In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. In fact, only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before, and – even after we thoroughly discussed it and why the core curriculum existed – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different were the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?

After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where the students were coming from — both literally and figuratively.


I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: declaring a major. I had applied to college as an undecided student, after having gone through the brochure a hundred times. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding  journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.

Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.


When I contrast my experience to the experience the  Chinese students might have had, had they gone to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities (the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao, China’s national higher education entrance exam) — but considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass.

As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.

This is akin to speculating about which figs taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.

Infant academoiselle reading a book

My parents chose to raise me in the US, but what if they’d stayed in China? Who knows if I would’ve even made it to university, never mind what I would’ve studied.


At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.

In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.

Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their specializations, without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.

It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?


Diderot monument

Let’s turn to France, one of the centers of the Enlightenment.

Before I’m accused of viewing the French system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.

Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they’d like to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. It determines which version of the bac they will take (another national higher education qualification exam), but the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.

When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.

And if it doesn’t work out? Students can change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically, they can also decide to retake their first year.

In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year (including those who fail as well as those who want to change majors). Since annual tuition is only a couple hundred Euros, many can afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years, a common degree duration worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want — even if they can’t take a bite out of every fig.


Outside of the formal education system, what I greatly admire about France is the deep-seated culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table, and being a financial analyst doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.

Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.

Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.

cassis chocolat macaron

Or  we can turn the figs into giant macarons. That might also work.