As you grow up from a teenager into an adult, you have to make one of the most difficult decisions in your entire life. You have to decide what you want to do. This is a huge decision, because whatever choice you make will have a big impact on the trajectory your life takes. Additionally, once you make your decision and start down that path, it is often extremely difficult to change your mind. The enormity and permanence of this choice is probably what makes most college students, myself included, change their major numerous times over their academic careers. There are lots of factors you can consider in thinking about this. Do you go with the path that will make the most money? What you are good at? What your parents do? There really is no right answer. As I struggled with this decision, I was lucky enough to have someone in my life that gave me some of the best advice I have ever been given, and completely changed where my life was going.
I was in my second semester of my second year at Notre Dame and had finally completed all of the pesky university requirements. After three semesters of switching majors though, it was time for me to make a decision, or at the very least to narrow it down to one area of study. Mathematics had always been my first love. I have always found beauty in the way the numbers work together, and I love the hunt for the perfect solution. The problem with studying mathematics though, is that the only real jobs are in teaching, and growing up the child of two educators, I knew I did not want to teach. My whole life I had thought that I would go into accounting, because it would allow me to play with numbers, I would make good money, and I could work from home, which for my physical situation was a huge plus. Also, Notre Dame had the number three ranked accounting program in the nation. As much as accounting made sense, my heart really was not in it, but I was not sure that mattered much given all of the other potential upsides. I also had this burning desire to help people, which I couldn’t see a way to fulfill in either mathematics or accounting. I really didn’t know what to do, and I feared making the wrong choice and spending the rest of my life unhappy, or worse yet, spending 6 years in college running up debt trying to figure this out.
As I struggled with this monstrous life choice, I emailed my freshman year assistant rector to catch up on how he was doing after graduating from law school the year before. His reply gave me some of the best advice I have ever been given, and it completely altered my life. To my surprise, he responded that he was miserable as a lawyer. He had gone to law school because he was an English major and wanted to make good money, so this was the only real choice. Even though he was making great money, he hated going to work every day. He just went through the motions each day waiting for 5 o’clock. He said to me “No matter what, study what you are passionate about. Everything else will take care of itself, if you look forward to going to work every day.” This really hit home with me, given the choice I was in the process of making. I read this statement several times and went to bed thinking about it.
When I woke up the next morning, it was like a fog had lifted, and I could see exactly what I was supposed to do. I knew I had two real passions, mathematics and helping people. The most direct way to help people was in medicine, and I thought that since I had spent my whole life on the patient side, that I would bring a fresh perspective as a doctor. Also, since medical schools do not care what your undergraduate major is so long as you are “well rounded,” I would still be able to study mathematics and follow that lifelong passion, so long as I picked up a lot of biology and chemistry electives. I looked at the student course catalog to see if this would be doable without killing myself by taking 24 credits per semester, and I actually was surprised to find that there was already a major designed for this. That very week I selected my major of mathematics with a specialization in life sciences. I knew this was the right decision almost immediately, because after I made it all of the anxiety I was carrying just melted away.
Even though I ended up not being able to go to medical school due to my disability, I was still able to satisfy my desire to help others by going into quantitative psychology. This field is actually sort of tailored to fit my needs, since it merges mathematics, statistics, psychology, and medicine. It combines all of my passions into a single framework, and I never would have even considered it, had it not been for a single email to catch up with an old friend. Going into quantitative psychology, or quant as it is often known, is what brought me to Kansas, and it is largely responsible for the creation of Roll Models, which I now know is what I am supposed to be doing with my life. I will never be able to repay my friend for the incredible advice he gave me at this critical juncture in my life, but I hope he knows how much I appreciate what he did for me.
I get up every day excited to do what I do. Be it working on a data analysis project for a client, writing posts for www.scottdrotar.com, or preparing a Roll Models talk, I enjoy what I am doing. You know you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, when you get lost in it, time loses all meaning, and you feel a sort of high when you finish. In psychology this is called a flow state, and it is an amazing sensation that I get to experience multiple times every week. Sometimes I almost forget that I get paid to do this stuff because I enjoy it so much….almost. I am truly fortunate to have found my true calling.
Even though a lot of you reading this have already chosen your career and the direction your life will take, I hope you will still take the time to think about what I have written. Think about what it is you are truly passionate about. It is never too late to start doing something new, and life is far too short to not spend it enjoying your passions. Even if you cannot pay the bills chasing your passion, that does not mean you cannot devote time to it. In fact, if you want to live the happiest, most fulfilling life you can, you really cannot afford to spend any more time not living your passion.