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Economically speaking, is it better to be an engaged history major or a begrudging math major?

A new study suggests that engagement is more important than content in most cases. That tracks with what I’ve seen.

For better or worse, most people aren’t great actors. They have a hard time faking enthusiasm over the long term. Even if they manage to fool other people, they don’t quite fool themselves. They quit, or drag their feet, or sabotage themselves just to get out of doing what they really don’t want to do. If that thing is your full-time job, you’re in for a rough ride.

Being successful in competitive fields involves putting in an unreasonable amount of effort. Putting in that extra effort is that much harder if you don’t like it in the first place.

That doesn’t just apply to graduates. It’s crucial for persistence in a degree program.

That’s a tough message to send to parents and/or legislators. They believe strongly that a given major fits a student for a given job. And there are some fields, like nursing, where that’s true.

But most college graduates over the age of, say, 30, don’t work in jobs that reflect their majors. That’s not how it works.

I’m increasingly a fan of very early courses that expose students to a range of modes of inquiry and where they can lead. Students often don’t know what the options are or what they mean. It’s one thing to see “sociology” in a catalog; it’s quite another to have a sense of what that means in practice.

(I’ve even got a sample course mapped out in my head. For an Intro to Social Sciences, take a theme like power or family. Every few sessions, apply a different disciplinary lens to that theme. Here’s how psychologists look at power; here’s how sociologists do; here’s how political scientists do. Which one made the most sense to you? That’s your major. It’s a sort of intellectual sampler platter.)

I’ve seen students struggle mightily until they changed majors, at which point they flourished. The ability was always there, but until the spirit was willing, they underperformed.

Admittedly, this perspective raises questions.

What if the thing you love doing doesn’t pay well, or at all? Enjoyment isn’t a binary variable. Even if your dream job is taken, you probably like some alternatives more than others. (Put differently, even great jobs have their downsides. As much as I enjoyed teaching, I never acquired a taste for grading papers.) Instead of feeling guilty about trying to enjoy your work, look at it as increasing your odds of success: you’re likelier to go the extra mile when you enjoy, or at least don’t hate, the journey.

What if you haven’t found anything you like yet? This is where the “sampler platter” course could come in, as well as career interest inventories. Alternately, for some people, it may make sense to do other things before college; what feels like apathy can be academic burnout. I’ve had students in their 30s and 40s tell me without shame that they were indifferent students at 18; they needed to grow up before they could take college seriously.

Ultimately, it’s about self-awareness. Figuring out where your tastes and talents fit is likelier to end well than just trying to slot yourself into a given field because it’s supposedly hot. Which raises the question of how to teach self-awareness at scale. How hard could that possibly be … ?

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