Should teenagers follow their passion when choosing subjects or a degree course? Yes, but….

For me, yesterday was one of those days when events turned out differently than I had planned. I won’t say it is a wasted day necessarily, but I had to invest my time differently from the way I had anticipated, as I decided to go to a university open day with my seventeen-year old son. I had discussed the open day with him the previous evening and he assured me that it was all fine, that he could go with his friends from school. I accepted that decision, as I do not want to be too pushy about asking if I should come with him. In the end, my last minute decision to go with him was something that he appreciated.

I suppose one of the prices we have to pay as a parent is the vulnerability to getting our plans disrupted. I’m not just talking about the teenager eating the last chocolate éclair that I was looking forward to demolishing in my late evening raid!

One of the popular phrases these days when speaking about young people is “follow your passion” and this is often applied to subject choices at GCSE, A-level and all the way to university degree courses. I must say that I agree with that phrase to some extent, but largely, when I hear it, it makes me a little nervous and I’ll explain. Before I explain my scepticism about the notion of following your passion, I must say that I do not think anyone can call themselves successful if they are doing something they hate passionately or have near interest or zero enthusiasm for. No matter how much money or fame they may have doing that thing, doing anything just for the money or just to please other people is the ultimate definition of failure, as life is so short.

Now, let me explain why I think following your passion can sometimes be dangerous and may lead to profound unhappiness later down the line. If you follow your passion and you are not successful in what you do. As for the word success, each person has their own definition of what success means for them. But earning a lot of money or being in the very top bracket of people in your field of work or whatever you do should not be the only thing that constitutes success.

In the week or two leading to the visit to the university open day we attended yesterday, my son had been wrestling with the issue of which degree course he should apply for at university. He has always been leaning on the side of studying something relating to physical sciences and that largely reflects    his subject choice of Physics, Maths and Further Maths. His fourth subject has changed twice since he started A-level last September. He started with History, changed to Economics and he’s now back to History. Three days ago, he was seriously considering going to university to study Economics and he came to me late in the evening to tell me about his decision. Now, while I personally like Economics very much and consider it to be one of the more useful of degree courses, and, depending on the young person’s talent and position and other factors, it may be a good idea to study Economics as a first degree, I am likely to discourage some students from  doing so. Let’s put professional courses such as Law, Medicine and Engineering aside for a moment. I would recommend Maths, Physics, Chemistry and History before Economics as a first degree. After studying any of these seven subjects courses I just listed here, as being above Economics, and even others that I have not mentioned here. One can still go on to do a postgraduate degree in Economics or Business or Management. Yes, even without having studied Economics or business at any level ever before. I must also quickly point out that I also would not usually recommend Law as a first degree, as I am of the view that one is better off studying something else before Law, as it is the university where one obtains the first degree that matters more than the actual degree course, for most courses anyway.

Getting back to where I started, after the open day at Imperial College yesterday, my son is now less sceptical about a Physics degree than he was before going. He was relieved to learn that most people do not go straight from a university degree to get a job in what they have studied. The conversation for the last six or so months has revolved around him not knowing what he wants to do in life, for which I constantly reassure him that it is perfectly normal at this age. The key thing is to develop your talent well and try to study something that gives you more options, especially when you do not know what you want to do. The good thing is that he has a list of about three or four professions that we all know that he is decidedly unsuited to – Medicine, Engineering, Computer Science and Accountancy. The problem is that he likes Economics, Physics and History – in that order – at the moment! The reason why that is a problems is that if you are applying to a competitive university, Physics is on one side, and Economics/History on the other. These are at two opposite ends, and writing a good personal statement that will persuade the admission officer of a good university will be tricky.

Just to conclude on the notion of following your passion, what I say to young people is that it’s good to follow your passion as you are extremely unlikely to succeed in doing something you utterly dislike. However, before you go for your passion, also try to think about   where you want to be in say 10 years’  time. Not only in terms of the job you want to be doing but where you want to be living and perhaps what money you’d like to be earning. No, money is not everything; however, it is more dignifying to earn a decent wage and have more options in life. The other point, which I believe applies to most people, is that not many are so passionate about one particular thing for a long time. For my son, his passion has fluctuated between Maths, History, Politics, Physics and Economics in the last few years. We all go through phases, and what we are passionate about today may not be what we are passionate about tomorrow or in a few years’ time.

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