The whether or not to follow your dreams post

…As if most 18-22 year olds have a real dream that doesn’t involve playing for the NBA.  But let’s settle for various shades of liking different majors different amounts.  Never mind that how much you like a major is only part how much you like the subject material and a much larger part how good the faculty is at teaching it.

Sorry.  Getting ahead of myself.

A big debate on personal finance blogs is whether someone should major in what they “love” and the money will follow, or whether they should major in something that will provide them a job when they graduate in 3-5 years.  If you do the former, you’re doomed to work at Denny’s the rest of your life.  If you do the latter, you have no soul and are doomed to a life of drudgery.

A related debate concerns the same question, but whether or not (or how much) you should go into debt for graduate school.  That will be addressed in a future post.

Turns out that the answer is not either or for either question, though which side of the rich in security vs rich in life spectrum you’re on is different for the two questions.

Let’s start with college.

Unless your dream involves becoming an engineer or nutritionist or some other major that you need the degree and training for, your major does not really matter.  And even with these specific fields, you can always take more classes after graduation and get a masters if you are willing to pay for the career change.  It is true that math majors make more than general studies majors, and that is for two reasons:  1.  math majors ON AVERAGE are smarter and more focused, so having a math major signals that your average smarts are higher than your average general studies majors and 2.  the supply/demand of how mathematicians think is less in supply/more in demand than for the way a general studies major is taught to think (do general studies majors perceive the world through specific methods?)

What a lot of the folks who tell you to “follow your dream” don’t seem to realize is that how how much you enjoy doing a specific job is only part of the utility maximization function.  Some people have things in their utility functions besides dinosaurs (assuming said person is over the age of 10) or Victorian romance novelists or whatever a person enjoyed studying most in college.  Some people like things such as… free time, job security, oh… and high salaries.  Some people like having nice things, or traveling, or taking vacations.  Sometimes, if these people take a job that they really like instead of a job that they would love if they were employed, then they get to max out on all these things in their utility functions.

Another thing that follow your dreamers often don’t seem to understand is the idea of compensating differentials.  Basically, people will pay you more to do a job that’s unpleasant for the majority of people.  People will pay you less to do a job that lots of people enjoy doing.  In economics terms, people will pay you X amount more to take on Y amount of disutility.  That’s one reason that economics jobs pay more than history jobs… it is more fun being a historian than being an economist.  (And yes, it is true that a lot of crappy jobs also don’t pay well, but they pay better than they would if they weren’t crappy… disutility is only one portion of what goes into a wage– skills, credentials, productivity, etc. these all drive wages up or down.  Being a professor is more fun than flipping burgers and pays better, but it also takes a lot more education.  If flipping burgers was fun, they’d be able to pay less to do it depending on minimum wage constraints.)

Then there’s the demand-side for passions.  A lot of people seem to have similar passions, meaning that you might not be able to get a job with your passion even were you willing to accept a lower wage for it.  And really, if I were to follow my passion, nobody would pay me for it.  There just isn’t a market for sleeping in and reading novels unless it’s combined with something distasteful like not getting to choose the novels or having to write about said novels, and even those fields are difficult to break into.  Heck, most schools you can’t major in that… maybe that’s what all those general studies majors are doing.

So should you follow your passion?  Well, weigh ALL the pros and cons.  Your work is only one part of your life (even if you’re an academic).  Think about your second choice options.  How much more do you love your passion than doing something else.  Look at employment statistics and wages and career paths for your passion compared to second choices.   Are you willing to waitress as a day job while applying for acting jobs?  Or live in a rural area not of your choice possibly adjuncting for a few years before landing a position teaching college-level English?  Weigh pros and cons and probabilities.  Think about the desirability of the back-up plans.  It isn’t an easy decision.  If you love your passion more than anything in the world and are willing to put up with hardship of one form or another to pursue it as a job instead of a hobby, then go for it.  If your passion pays well and has good employment stats and you’re good at it… well, that sounds pretty obvious.  If you’re not crazy about spending a few years in the minor leagues possibly never getting into a major, well, then maybe your back-up position in engineering that you enjoy and are relatively good at is a better idea.  You can still play amateur on weekends and after work.

Where do you fall on the following your dreams question?

26 Responses to “The whether or not to follow your dreams post”

  1. eemusings Says:

    I’m 22. I’m still trying to figure this out for myself.

    I ‘followed my dreams’, doing the one and only thing I could/would do.

    Now…I’m not regretting it, but I am definitely doing some serious thinking about what a career means and what the future might hold.

  2. Everyday Tips Says:

    My dreams evolved in college. I actually started as a math major, with the intent of teaching either in high school or college. Then I realized that to be a professor, I would have to publish, and I had no interest in that. In other words, I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into when I first decided.

    I then switched to Finance, and got a BA in that. I was already engaged and knew I would never go back to school once I got, out, so I went straight through and got my MBA in Materials/Logistics Management.

    The job market was a disaster when I graduated and I took the first job offer I got- as a computer programmer. That was so far from my dream that I can’t even describe it. But, it was flexible, which was more important than my dream. Since I have 3 kids now, my life is pretty much dictated by the needs of my family. I do not have a ‘dream’ career as I am not working right now. However, I wouldn’t trade the life I am living for anything in the world, even though it doesn’t require an education.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Man I LOVED today’s comic… but don’t really have anybody to share it with (ah, the axiom of choice… we went through how it was equivalent to Banach Tversky in class…) I majored in math because I like math a lot (I got twitchy in high school the semester they ran out of classes for me to take) and because I only needed 7 additional classes for the major…I ended up taking more than that. But I did have a second major.

      It sounds like you’re doing what you love right now. Many people never get to that point ever. :)

      • Everyday Tips Says:

        I am quite pleased with my profession at the moment, that is for sure! Believe me, I feel incredibly lucky. (I have tenure as a mom now, after 16 years… :) )

        I had never been to before- I too enjoyed the comic. I now want to carve a pumpkin. Anyway, I just light up when my kids want help with math. My oldest son is in AP Stats, my daughter is in Algebra 2 and my youngest is in Algebra 1. I will admit that I was a bit rusty going back to AP Calc with my son last year. If you don’t use it, you lose it!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I LOVE tutoring math. Lots of fun. :) Right now with my kid we’re just starting addition and time and money. It’s fun though. I can’t wait until he can see how everything is all interconnected.

      • Everyday Tips Says:

        My daughter (freshman in high school) tutors geometry. She just loves teaching, and math is her passion. Not to mention the money is pretty good too!

  3. Lindy Mint Says:

    I followed my passion (or what I thought was my passion) for my degree, only to abandon it after graduation. Then I followed a second passion career, and ended up hating the business aspect of it. I think it takes a lot of self realization and looking at the hard facts in order to follow your dreams. It can be done, but not necessarily just by following your first dreamy whims (like I did).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Definitely. There’s a lot of changing and growth as we try things and figure things out. Until I did an internship and found out how boring doing science is compared to reading about it, I thought I wanted to be a genetic engineer.

  4. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I just got a degree in what I liked (English) to have a degree which seems to be the only thing people care about anymore. “Oh why English?” they ask and I give them fifty million fantastic reasons that also make me highly qualified for said job on table. Am I making a ton of money? No but I’m not destitute either, have great benefits and generally like my job (gasp). I always suggest to get a degree in a subject matter you enjoy and will do well in so your grades are nice and high. The rest falls into place and most of the big dollars require further studies like Masters or even Doctorates. But like you said, another post.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, very few things require a specific subject major. Though my sister is raking in the big bucks with her engineering undergraduate degree. Though knowing her she’d be raking in big bucks no matter what she decided to do.

  5. Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

    I suppose I’m an anomaly in my field since I actually like accounting / finance. What I’ve noticed in the last 10-15 years or so that I’ve been working in the field is that many people are going into it that don’t really ‘belong’ in it. They may have got an undergrad in science or arts, found out they didn’t like the work – or couldn’t get work – and are going into the occupation for the pay and the security. Which is sad, because most don’t have a natural talent (or enthusiasm) for it. It makes it more difficult to hire the right person at times, since a designation doesn’t seem to signify what it used to – when they used to be more difficult to get and you really had to want to do it to get into it. Today, everyone and their mother has to have a degree for jobs that used to not require one 20 years ago. That seems wrong to me – can you do a post on that in the future? :-)

    Personally, I enjoy writing, but am not very good at it. So I’m happy to keep it at the hobby level and save my time for what I’m really good at. Lying in bed reading – and playing with numbers – is one of those things. ;-)

    I’ve encouraged my kids to try and do what they really like doing – but a key to that is being ambitious as well. You can have all the talent in the world, but if you lack ambition, you’ll probably make bupkus no matter what field you go into.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      As someone with a lot of ambition, I wonder if I’d be happier if I had just a wee bit less! Because no matter how much I achieve I’m always going to be aiming higher and falling short. There’s probably a sweet spot I’ve overshot there.

      There is some degree creep, but I only have a limited knowledge of that specific topic. It’s tied in with the idea of skill-biased-technical-change which means that a lot of things that didn’t require degrees before actually do require more knowledge now because of how technology has changed. (It can go the opposite direction too– technology could make the human inputs be less educated like cash registers at fast food places, but for the most part we’ve needed more educated folks.)

      • Jacq @ Single Mom Rich Mom Says:

        This is just my personal experience as a fellow ambitious person, but the ambition drive seems to mellow as you get older (mid 40’s seems to be a sweet spot). :-) I think it comes when you realize you don’t have anything to prove to anyone (including yourself) anymore. Yet another reason to be happy at getting older!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I saw a really great talk about how as we age we get happier… each sad event that occurs, we’re not as sad, but there are more sad events overall.

  6. frugalscholar Says:

    As commenter above said: things can change. In grad school, I thought only my career could make me happy. Then I decided my kids contributed most to my happiness. Now? My children are in college and I realize that what contributes most to my day-to-day happiness: my husband!

    I am jealous of people who can sustain career ambition over the long term. I love love love teaching. Publishing: not so much.

    Also, no major guarantees a job. When I was young (60s), all the engineers lost their jobs b/c Grumman didn’t get several contracts. So all the engineers went into other things.

    Nursing would be the exception now.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yeah, flexibility and adaptability are pretty important meta-skills to have. Who knows what is going to be around 30, 40, 50 years from now.

      My family definitely contributes most to my day-to-day happiness. But work contributes most to my angst! It’s like filling in a hole rather than building a mountain. But we gotsta eat.

  7. Mike Choi Says:


    This comment has nothing to do with your post, but I do advocate people to pursue their dreams and I have a saying livin’ the dream. Anyway, a few months ago, you posted a comment on the Get Rich Slowly in reply to my story of renting out a spare bedroom in my house to pay for graduate school. In the comments section, you replied that your sister does this. I was wondering if you could e-mail me so that I can ask some question about renting out a room from a female perspective. I’ve been asked by a few female readers about this. If you could contact me, I would greatly appreciate it.


  8. Sandy L @ Says:

    I liked science and math, and it was practical, so I became an engineer..because I knew the job placement rate was high and I had a good chance of paying off the debt incurred in college quickly. Am I happy with my choice? Absolutely. I’ve had a phenomenal career.

    Have I always loved it? Heck no. I’ve had a whole host of bad experiences, but the good exceeds the bad by a large margin.

    I don’t think there is a perfect job or career. I think every career has negative and positive aspects to it. I also think 90% of whether you enjoy it is related to the people you work for and with. And if you’re not happy, see if there’s a way where you can help make it a better place to work…or if not, look for another position.

  9. Money Reasons Says:

    I would like to encourage my son and daughter to follow their dreams. But I understand the finances, and the fact that they might not make much with their dreams…

    And so, that is the reason I’m trying to build up their nest egg early! If they follow their dreams, they’ll need at least some passive income as a fallback… (and if that’s not the case, it’ll make a heck of a down payment on a house)! :)

  10. SonyaAnn Says:

    Great post. I guess I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.LOL

  11. Link love (Powered by feta cheese and handpainted tees) « Musings of an Abstract Aucklander Says:

    […] and Maggie blogged about that classic dilemma: whether to follow your dreams or to take a more practical […]

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