I was approached by the father of a high-schooler entering university next year. She was thinking about applying for a degree in the social sciences, but she hadn’t decided yet.
He came up to me and said, “Hey, I have a question for you. My daughter wants to go into the social sciences — what the hell is that?”.
So I responded by going through the big disciplines of social sciences — sociology, anthropology, psychology and on.
His follow-up question was then, “How much money can you make with those degrees? Do they even get you jobs?”.
I love his daughter, she’s like a little sister to me. And I wanted to give him an answer that would let her choose a future that made her happy. So I said, “I know tons of super successful CFOs and CEOs who started off in something like psychology or sociology. I also know lots of people who recently graduated with degrees in engineering or business who are still working retail, minimum-wage jobs. She’s a smart girl. Whatever she goes into, she’ll be able to make it work.”
I was pretty happy with my answer… but I’m not sure he really got it.
At every stage in life, there’s certain achievements that everyone says you need to have. And honestly, I wasn’t too surprised. In Asian-Canadian circles, the only respectable career paths are something professional: lawyer, doctor, engineer… you get the point. English degrees meant working at McDonalds. Engineering degrees meant perks at Google.
But that conversation stayed with me for days. I wanted to understand what the pattern was. What was the formula that determined how successful you would be? Did choosing the right degree or the right field that much? What made the difference?
And the answer is, you.
There’s no degree, or field, or job that you can choose that’ll have you set for life. Completing a certified training course won’t guarantee you success, nor will choosing a field with a growing job market. Now you may be thinking, “But Jess, we all know that the maximum earning potential for a doctor or a lawyer is higher than someone with no degree. Are you saying that getting a degree is worthless?”
No. I’m not saying that. Certain degrees or career fields are undoubtedly better than others — and I mean “better” in the broadest sense. Whatever you want most in your life, that’s “better” for you. But they’re only one part of the equation. What about the other part? The other part is you.
An excellent degree or the perfect field are worthless without you.
Say you wanted to look for a degree that would guarantee you a well-paying, secure job. Traditionally, the hierarchy might look something this:
Philosophy degree = 1 point
English literature degree = 2 points
Life sciences degree = 3 points
Engineering degree = 4 points
Doctor/Lawyer/some fancy professional degree = 5 points
(Now don’t come yelling at me about how useful and valuable a philosophy degree is. Philosophy is extremely important — I get it. But when it comes to ease of finding a traditionally well-paying, secure job, it’s a bit harder)
And this is how hard you work:
Give Zero Shits = -1
I’ll Do The Minimum = 1
Trying A Bit Harder = 10
Solid B+ Effort = 50
This Is Top Priority = 100
Dedicating Every Ounce Of My Time And Effort = 1000
And to see how much success you end up achieving, you’ve got to multiply the two. So a guy with a philosophy degree who seriously loves his field and dedicates everything he’s got to it… he’s going to end up with 1000 “success points”. On the other hand, take a doctor who hates his job and just does the bare minimum to get through school and get a job. He’s only got 5 “success points”.
You might have a top-notch degree but what you do with that degree is exponentially more important.
If you’ve got an engineering degree, you’ve got an excellent job market out there for you right now. But if you just sit at home, hoping job offers come in just because you’ve got a degree… well you’re going to be pretty disappointed. It’s more important that you spend the effort working on personal projects to showcase your skills and constantly go out there and learn more about your field. It’s more important that you interact with the top players in software development and get your hands dirty practicing your craft. That’s how you’ll get the most out of your degree.
Understanding this multiplier effects makes it even more obvious why it’s so important to choose a degree or a field you love. The more you love the work, the more you’ll be willing to put in the time and effort. Someone who loves their work with all their heart has a better chance of finding success than someone with lukewarm interest in a great degree.
Your qualifications only raise your potential maximum level of success. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it. The only thing that can guarantee you success is you.
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