Study Hacks Blog Posts from November, 2010 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

The Pre-Med and Ira Glass: Complicated Career Advice from Compelling People

November 12th, 2010 · 62 comments

The Tragic Mistake

Not long into their interview with public radio host Ira Glass, one of the three college-aged interviewers, a young girl, asks, with a desperate smile etched on her face, how to decide “which of her passions” to pursue.

“Like how do you determine, how…”, she begins.

“How do you figure out what you want?”, Glass interrupts.

“How do you not only figure out what you want, but know that you’ll be good at it?”, she finishes.

There’s a pause. In this moment, when Glass prepares his answer, the young girl’s earlier admission that she’s a pre-med, and doubting her decision to attend med school, hangs in the air. Glass can relate: he too had been considering med school when he stumbled into his first radio internship, after his freshman year of college.

He proceeds cautiously, softly: “Honestly, even the stuff you want you’re not necessarily good at right away…I started working at 19 at the network level, and from that point it took me years. The key thing is to force yourself through the work, force the skills to come. That’s the hardest phase.”

One of the other interviewers, a young man in a baseball cap, interjects: “Do you think hard work can make you talented?”

“Yes. I do.”

The students let this sink in.

“In the movies there’s this idea that you should just go for your dream,” Glass continues. “But I don’t believe that.”

By the students’ reactions, this is not what they expected to hear.

“Things happen in stages. I was a terrible reporter, but I was perfectly good at other parts of working in radio: I am a good editor…I feel like your problem is that you’re trying to judge all things in the abstract before you do them.”

A beat.

“That’s your tragic mistake.”

The Roadtrip Nation Revelation

This interview is one of many conducted by the non-profit organization Roadtrip Nation, which sends students across the country to interview “eclectic individuals who have resisted pressures to conform.” They seek advice for building an interesting path through life.

If you explore the full Roadtrip Nation video archive, as I did one recent weekend, you begin to appreciate the nuance and serendipity behind these compelling people and their compelling careers. Amidst this nuance, however, one conclusion is stark: the canonical advice to follow your passion is way too simplistic. As with Glass’s story of toiling for years before finally discovering a niche in radio editing, many of the interviews echo this same theme that passion is not something you discover in a career center.

Its source is more complicated…

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The Roberts Method: A Professor’s Advice for Falling in Love With Your Major

November 3rd, 2010 · 37 comments

Major Doubts

“I’m enrolled to study computer science…a choice that was heavily influenced by my parents.”

So began a recent e-mail — one of many I receive that echo the same theme.

“I think that if I continue on in computer science I might find a love for it eventually,” the student said optimistically, before adding: “but a few days ago I saw that the university still has some open slots in the psychology program…”

The exams in this student’s computer science courses were getting tougher, and she began to wonder if she had missed her true calling in another field, like psychology. In fact, once she started thinking about it, she began to increasingly convince herself that psychology had always sounded appealing.

I see this all the time: students who question whether or not they chose the right major.

Some students in this situation respond with action, switching concentrations, sometimes multiple times, in a fruitless search for the perfect fit. (As longtime Study Hacks readers know, I don’t believe in the existence of a “right major,” which dooms any such quest to failure.) Others grind through the difficult courses that populate the upperclassman years, experiencing the work as a penance for an irreversible choice, poorly made. In both cases, the results are no good: anxiety, burn out, and sometimes even deep procrastination.

One of the core ideas behind my Romantic Scholar approach to student life is that courses are not something to survive, but should instead be something to relish in and to engage you; what I call the “foundation of a life well-lived.”

Interested in tested advice for building this relationship with your studies, I turned to an expert: Andrew Roberts, a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Professor Roberts has given a lot of thought to how students should approach the challenges of higher education. In fact, he recently published a book on these ideas: The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education.

I got Professor Roberts on the phone and asked him to share his advice for falling in love with your major. The goal we’re interested in, I explained, is not just to enjoy our coursework, but to also become the type of star who gains access to fantastically interesting post-grad opportunities.

If you want to make the Romantic Scholar a reality in your student life, you should listen to what the good professor had to say…

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