To Follow A Star

How do people decide what to do for a living? This question was prompted by a post from my blogging friend, Indiana Jen, a post in which she relates how Florida governor Scott disparaged anthropology and other liberal arts degrees as less applicable to the job market than others.

There was a time when I would have agreed with the Governor. It made sense to me that engineering, science, business and even law would be more practical than a mere liberal arts degree. Now, however, with the perspective of many decades behind me, I would counsel a young person differently, even in these hard times when the true unemployment rate, counting the partly employed and the discouraged drop-outs, probably is near 20%.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the fifth D: All ...

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, via Wikipedia

The way I reason now has to do with happiness. Human beings are enormously varied in their talents and in how they develop and mature. Some are early bloomers who know from early on what they want to do and others take a long time, or might get bogged down, discouraged, and never find their niche. But to me, happiness is maximized for those who first identify their own talents and then follow that dream wherever it leads, regardless of whether a particular field may be crowded or in high demand. There are many different kinds of intelligence, not merely the kind measured by IQ tests. Indeed, one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs passionately sounded the same theme, Steve Jobs. His message: find your passion, whatever it may be, and follow it.

One reason to follow one’s heart is that the kinds of skills in demand constantly change, and very well might do so dramatically between freshman year and graduation, and that’s assuming college at all. I submit that one of the biggest mistakes many young people make is that they even need a college education.  College is a business which creates its own exclusivity and leverages the false meme that quality of teaching drives its graduates’ success.  Such success is instead primarily the result of past success enabling the qualitative filtering of applicants.  The price of college, driven by the salaries of professors and administrators, has reached completely unreasonable heights, so much so that most students graduate with staggering debt that defeats the meme that it is essential for financial success. Instead, many are well suited for the trades and despite high unemployment, industry is clamoring for capable graduates of technical schools. Even beyond that, look at two prominent college dropouts who excelled both technically and in business: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

A college education isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when colleges embraced something called a core curriculum, a grounding of all students in the basics of literacy, history, science and math. No more. Now, curricula are so varied that, at least to me, a diploma’s significance has been greatly diluted. However, if it is from a reputable institution, it does mean that a certain minimal effort and level of responsibility have been expended (assuming the absence of cheating on a large scale, something to be considered). But my sense is that many young people who go to college are not college material and shouldn’t be there. Colleges accept them because that’s the way they make their money, and government encourages such mistakes by overly subsidizing people through loan programs. It is a terrible waste – only about half of students entering graduate within six years.

Then, I had this thought too, that many high-paying jobs might not be as fulfilling as the pay would indicate. I will apologize in advance for speculating this way because it is based on perceptions and not experience, but I offer the following examples as fitting that concept.

  • Pharmacist: a very competitive profession with extremely high requirements in science, biology and chemistry and which could be crucial in preventing botched medications if it weren’t under-utilized. From what I see, most spend their days on their feet, searching computer screens for interactions and medication histories, and managing pill inventories.  As I see it, computer software is making this profession obsolescent at the retail level.
  • Airline pilot: a job that requires both high technical skills, good eyesight and physical dexterity, particularly in demanding weather conditions. However, the great bulk of their time is spent on autopilot, so much so that airline companies are having to revamp their training programs. But it involves constant travel, living mostly in hotel rooms and eating a lot of airport food. It would be fun at first, but to me this would be about as exciting as driving a (complicated but automated) bus.
  • Lawyer: a very competitive job that requires post-grad education, excellent communication skills, and patience for absorbing mind-numbing detail. Trial lawyers appear quite glamorous on TV, but I think the average lawyer’s life is one of great tedium. Think of searching through the detail of hundreds of cases, or a real-estate lawyer drawing up papers year after year all the same except for the occasional hiccup in the laws, or a patent lawyer trying to match a hundred subtleties to find some exception that makes an invention worth a new patent. Not my idea of excitement.
  • CPA: another competitive course of study that involves a broad range of fine detail, math and business studies. However, once out in practice many CPA’s find that their success depends more on salesmanship than on technical details, and if that isn’t your bag, you are doomed to disappointment. As for auditing, it is on a par for interest with the law trade above.

Well, you get the idea. Those aren’t my cup of tea, but I’m sure they fit many. I

The Seven Liberal Arts by Marten de Vos, 1590

The Seven Liberal Arts, via Wikipedia

consider myself extremely lucky. While my Navy career cost me good deal of family separation, I somehow never once missed Christmas at home. It was an adventurous job that spanned submarines and surface ships, sea duty and shore duty, administrative and technical work. It allowed us to live in seven different cities during my career and it allowed me the early retirement that enabled a second career as an aerospace battery engineer, one in which I enjoyed a good deal of design work as well as business management.

I am thinking that Jennifer Lockett (Indiana Jen) is lucky as well. She is a teacher of anthropology in a private school and she has expressed her pleasure with her job, never mind that the governor of Florida doesn’t think much of it. She interacts with a changing array of personalities in her students and obviously enjoys travel and keeping up with a profession that uses modern communication technology and constantly reveals new discoveries.

I say, listen to Jennifer and Steve Jobs, young people – follow your star.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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11 Responses to To Follow A Star

  1. Jennifer Lockett says:

    One correction Jim, I teach history (although I have taught Anthropology in the past when I was teaching college). Although I did study Anthropology… at a Florida University.


  2. John Erickson says:

    I would put forth the counter-argument that college IS a good idea, but not just for learning things. While I lived at home while going to college, I did spend a lot of time outside my parents’ house, met a lot of people from different places, both geographically and sociologically, that I never would have met had I gone straight into the job market. Yes, I got into some trouble, but that was also a learning experience, and an eye-opener onto a world I had never seen before.
    I would also state that you need to have a second star. I SO wanted to design airplanes and (eventually) spaceships, but I wanted to get out into the world, and didn’t really want to move to Seattle to work for Boeing. So I took my secondary star – an interest, oddly enough, for which I owe Mr. Jobs endlessly profound thanks. I studied computer programming, thanks to the interest in computers an Apple 2 stirred in me, and thanks to my foray into the world of I/T, I traveled extensively, met dozens of various sci-fi celebrities, and eventually met the woman I married.
    But I would definitely agree that a high-price education ain’t what it used to be, and that for some, the massive debt required for a “big-name” education isn’t the only way to go.
    And that, every once in a while, I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t followed my dad’s urging to go into big business, and had joined the USAF…….


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Well John, I would be the last guy in the world to suggest that picking life’s road is a science. It sounds to me like you did follow your talent instead of settling for some compromise. As Yogi Berra said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”



      • John Erickson says:

        That’s okay, Jim, I just re-read my first sentence, which states that college isn’t just about learning things, then go on to detail all the things I DID learn in college! Obviously, how to construct an opening sentence wasn’t one of them. (How about “not just about learning in a classroom”, or something FAR wittier? 😀 )


  3. PiedType says:

    I firmly believe it’s important to enjoy your chosen work, job, or field (or conversely, to choose work you enjoy). You’ll be doing it for a long time, through good times and bad, so you should if at all possible do something you enjoy, something that brings you great personal satisfaction. Not everyone is lucky enough to get to make such a decision. Imagine slogging through life, chained to a job you detest, just because you have to do something to pay the rent, and you lack the education or training to do anything else.

    This is why I continue to encourage higher education. I think turning your back on that education is limiting your opportunities/potential, both now and if/when circumstances change in the future. Sure, if you are positive at age 18 that what you want to do does not require a college education (a trade, for example), it’s hard to justify the cost. But how many kids at age 18 are wise enough to make decisions about the rest of their lives when they don’t even know yet what their options might be?

    It’s appalling to me that education and the economy have brought us to the point that people are seriously questioning whether college is worth the expense. My son and I are both hoping it is the equivalent of an “education bubble” that will burst before his kids reach college age. Frankly, I think it has to. Colleges are pricing themselves out of business, to the detriment of our entire society and our future.


  4. Jim Wheeler says:

    Generally, Pied, I agree with you, but just to pick some nits:

    1. As I said in the post, curricula are no longer the balanced formulae they once were, so selection is critical.
    2. Some people are simply not blessed with the capacity to do college justice.
    3. In college you don’t get what you pay for, you get what you work for. That of course discounts the prestige factor that can put someone on a fast track, but I would like to believe that actual ability is required to go farther than entry level. (But then, there have been some suspicious Yale grads in government, aren’t there?)
    4. To reiterate the post point, just like in the medical industry, also a semi-monopoly, the extra money is going into the pockets of the avaricious.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.


    • PiedType says:

      I agree not everyone is college material. I also agree with your #3. A dedicated, determined student can extract a good education from a mediocre college, but not even an Ivy League school can force-feed a disinterested student.


  5. Jennifer Lockett says:

    I also believe that both students and parents should be given solid and thorough counseling on the realities of college before they enroll. Right now, the focus is so much on “just get them into college” that they don’t advise them on things like:
    Realities of student loan debt – e.g. cannot write off, ever (even if you’re homeless or get cancer).
    Realities of earning potential – what are the most marketable majors, what are the median incomes of people in your field, what are the employment rates (e.g. while employed architects can enjoy a solid salary, more than 50% are currently unemployed).
    What majors and subjects of study will give you the most option? (e.g. even with a history degree, you can get into med school if you take organic chemistry and physics for science majors, a career in finance might give you more earning potential but you’ll be pigeonholed in a career-path unless you want to return to school for another degree)
    What do you hope to get out of your college degree?
    and so forth.
    Right now, many students in college are unsure of their direction in life or the responsibilities that they are taking on – we don’t let 18 year old drink, yet we will let them sign financial agreements with little real information on them, that will follow them for life.
    Many students would be better served going into job training and then their field of choice. It can be an expensive exercise to enroll in University, realize you hate it or are bad at it, and be no further along in a career path. Given the higher expense of community colleges these days, there are no ‘cheap paths’ to figure out what you want.
    I agree with your previous poster that the Education bubble is soon to burst. Student loan defaults are currently a record high and the average student leaves college with $24K in debt and no job prospects.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You have many excellent points here, Jennifer – a true contribution to the discussion, and especially on the student debt issue. I understand the total student debt burden is now about the same size, nationally, as credit card debt. That is massive.

      I should point out, relative to my own post, that while I recommend following one’s talent as the prime objective, I am not recommending that one ignore the financial prospects, but rather consider the whole picture. For example, when our oldest son joined the Navy because he hadn’t yet matured enough for college, I strongly advised him to choose a specialty that would transfer easily to civilian life. That worked out very well for him. Instead of specializing in ordnance, for example, he became an aviation technician. After his Navy career he now has an excellent job as a maintenance supervisor for Coast Guard aviation.


  6. ansonburlingame says:


    A great subject, what to do about or with a college education. I am right in the midst of “counselling” two grandchildren, both seniors in high school making such decisions. I also have two sophomores in HS watching carefully what is going on with two older sisters. Fascinating.

    “What do you want to be when you grow up” is NOT the right question to ask such youngsters from an old man. You KNOW they have given it much thought on their own. In all four cases there is “fear” on the part of all four of them that they have NOT reached a definitive conclusion. So they are uncertain and fearful of deciding where to go to college or what to study when they get there.

    The same thing went on with my two sons long (over 20 years) ago as they walked down the road to decide where to go and what to study. I did the same thing 50 years ago (1961) when I made my own decision. That decision resulted in the “four most miserable years of my life” at the Naval Academy. Short term pain for sure. But it was probably the best decision of a life changing nature that I ever made as well. The long term gain of those brutal four years resulted in introducing me the a much bigger and more complex world than I ever imagined it could be while being home in my comfortable, middle class “nest” for the first 18 years of my life.

    Is college the correct path to follow to prepare you for a job after graduation? If yes, then study the “hard” stuff that industry seeks in most college graduates. Focus your efforts on “engineering” (comuters or otherwise), learn all you can, then plan on being hired as a “computer engineer”, make a good starting salary and work on computers for the rest of your life. Ugh for me but not necessaryily “them”. Same with being a doctor, lawyer, etc. My step son is a very good opthamologist. But I for one cannot imagine looking at eyeballs for a career.

    On the other hand my step son is RICH and I never was or will be so.

    Again I had a college education that at the time was “shoved up my ass a nickel at a time” to the tune of about $50,000. It hurt!! Today one can expect about $200,000 worth of nickels waiting for you in some schools. Yikes. Nickels have not changed in size since 1961 as far as I know.

    But in hindsight it was worth every nickel, for me. Why? Because college challenged me to be the “best that I could be” and forced me to work hard to achieve that “best” that was within me, whether “bracing up as a Plebe” or passing a “thermo” exam and all else in between.

    I then restarted that effort at the lowest rung of the professional ladder as a naval officer and went on to be…….?

    And now at age 69 I am a “writer” and love it. But I did not study to be a writer. I became one long after I gained a lot of experience to write about things that now matter to me. And it took a lot of hard work along the way to gain that experience, which is almost exclusively what I now use to “write” (along with some “simple math” which I learned to do in college!!).

    Life is NOT a bowl of cherries and anyone that goes to college seeking cherries will be disappointed in my view, somewhere along the way. Yes, there may be cherries of all sorts along the way in a career but also some sour grapes as well. A good college will teach you to “think” when you encounter sour grapes and do something positive for yourself, your family and maybe even “society” when you hit such walls of concern. Eating cherries on the other hand is easy.

    Ultimately, as I try to tell my grandkids today, it is NOT what you do in life as a career, it is HOW you do “it” the career. And whatever the career might become, if you try hard to be the “best that you can be” and do so, then happiness MIGHT follow, along with many sour grapes for anyone as well.



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