Relax, young Palawan.
I know you’re probably rapidly browsing through Google, searching for the one piece of advice that will help you to decide which course to do, especially when the deadline is coming up.
I’ve been there.
In fact, I was constantly vacillating between different courses, that I nearly went crazy.
It’s not a joke.
I received my A Level results in March 2014, and promptly found my dreams crushed.
I wanted to study medicine in Singapore, but found that my grades – BBAD, didn’t qualify me for them.
Not knowing what to do, I tried my best to go through the discretionary admissions route. I wanted to achieve something so significant that they would give me a place.
I spent the two years of mandatory national service in Singapore volunteering to organise large scale events for a charity.
But in September 2015, my dreams fell apart when I made the call.
Unfortunately, you would still need the basic grades to qualify through discretionary admissions.
It may have changed now.
But my worries went into overdrive after hearing that. All that effort had gone to waste.
And now, I didn’t know what to do.
I tried everything I knew.
- I would speak to everyone who would listen about how fussed I was about deciding a course of study
- I would ask people about how they chose their course of study
- I approached pastors for help and spiritual guidance
Still, I didn’t get a clear answer.
Things got so serious that I fell into depression. I know. It sounds like an overstatement.
But I started feeling suicidal. Since I couldn’t study medicine, my mind reasoned, there wasn’t much point continuing to live.
One night, I found myself rushed into the Institute of Mental Health in Singapore, and checked by a psychiatrist.
After that incident, I thought my career was over. Now, I had a mental health record. And it seemed nearly impossible to get into a good course now.
Not knowing what else to do, I ended up applying for everything. In the process of deciding, I was so anxious that I binged on everything I could get my hands on.
- Accounting at the Singapore Management University
- Engineering at the Singapore University of Technology and Design
- Psychology and Biology Double Major at the National Technological University
- Business at the National University of Singapore
- Medicine at the International Medical University (in Malaysia)
- Law at Murdoch University
If you look at the courses I applied for, there was no theme. I just applied everywhere.
I didn’t know what I wanted.
I ended up getting acceptance letters everywhere.
That may be you today.
You don’t know how to choose your course, given that for most of your education, things have been chosen for you.
And even when you haven’t particularly liked something, you may have found yourself doing well. Maybe it hasn’t been the greatest, but it has been okay.
And parents have told you to study something that ‘will have a future’.
My advice? Here’s what I learnt.
Recognise why this decision is tough
This is probably the first significant decision you will make, and this is going to be tough.
For much of your education, you haven’t had such a decision to make before. Or the decisions you’ve had to make such as choosing your subject combination when you were 15, and then when you were 17 when you had to choose between a polytechnic, or a Junior College, seemed to have much lower stakes.
This is the first time that what you’re choosing, a university course, is going to cost you a significant amount of money (about $36,000, for an average $9000 for 4 years of university), and a significant amount of time in university.
It may seem like a big decision.
Cut yourself some slack and stop blaming yourself for being ‘weak’ for thinking that you’re indecisive and unable to make a decision, as easily as your friends.
One of the most important exercises I did was a ‘love letter’ to myself. In that letter, write down
- What qualities you think you have
- How you have shown them in the past
This helps you to remember that no matter what happens, you would have the capacity to deal with it.
Often we think that the decision we make here, if wrong, might be something we can’t deal with.
Wrong. You can. And you have done so in the past too, with previous decisions.
Not every decision will work out.
But look back at your past. Ask yourself,
- What’s are bad decisions I’ve made?
- How have I dealt with those?
One of my biggest mistakes was constantly comparing my journey to others, and wonder why others seemed to have come to their decisions so much more easily.
But they had their journeys. And when I thought that they ‘knew’ better than me, it was false. Most of them didn’t really know.
They just didn’t think as much.
Stop comparing is easy advice to give. But what does it look like in reality?
It means that you’ve to stop looking at their journey and try to extrapolate that to yours.
Rather than asking
- what are you studying?
It might be better to ask them,
What helped you to make your decision?
Start from strengths, not what will pay you well
You could start from fields like computer science, and finance, which are ‘hot’ fields to enter now.
But if you’re not good at those, you would have an average career.
Cal Newport, in his book, ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’, takes apart the traditional ‘passion hypothesis’, which argues that you should ‘do what you love’.
But that’s not the best way to create a long lasting career. Passion is emotion. That will change.
What is a better anchor is your strength, which you can grow and go deeper into.
That will be what will make you different (and better) from most others.
The problem is that most of us get bored easily. Studying something ‘new’ and exciting may be tempting, especially in university. Imagine your skill as a muscle. Imagine yourself going to university to train that muscle and make it much stronger.
But it’s going to be boring in the ‘mental gym’.
That’s where most of us decide to go onto other things.
Sure, you can go ahead and choose the hottest topic, but it may not guarantee you longer term success, to become the top of your field in what you do.
I’ve seen software engineers who’ve come out of degree programmes not succeed, because analysis, logic, just weren’t their strengths.
Of course, this depends on how you define success for life.
If it is to have a great career growing to the top of your field, then you need to know that following your ‘heart’ may not be the best way there.
As Naval Ravikant, the angel investor behind the likes of Yammer, Uber and Airbnb once said,
Be the best in the world at your skill.
Keep defining it until this is true.
Whilst I was searching for my university course, I didn’t dare to take up the humanities because I was worried that I wouldn’t have a career in it.
Society told me many times that it was science that would get you further in life.
But I decided to study social work, a social science.
That allowed me to fully embrace my skill in writing, during the essays I wrote.
It is your strength, which will last you for a long time, and get you further.
Limit your decisions
I was searching everywhere for a course that would take me. Even as far as Malaysia, and Australia.
Sure, they were theoretically possible, and they did offer me a place.
But they weren’t financially doable for my family.
You can find any course in the world that could take you, but you may not find yourself being happier.
In fact, as Barry Schwartz has argued in his book ‘The Paradox of Choice’, more choice might make you unhappier.
It is the ability to ‘satisfice’, rather than to maximise that might ironically, make us happier.
Recognise that there won’t be a perfect choice.
But recognise that you’re going to be able to make it count, whatever happens.