A Letter To The Freshmen

My second youngest brother is starting his first year of college in a week. Consider this my letter to him and everyone else starting college (or grad school or any other new phase of life):

Hey Joe,

How's it going? As your big brother I feel obligated to impart all my endless wisdom to you. You lucky, lucky man. Here's the deal, I know you've picked a major already and that's awesome. I'm sure you're getting a taste of this already, but everybody's favorite question after they've figured out what you're studying is asking you what you're planning on "doing with it." Are you going to be a chemical engineer? Go to med school? Do cancer research? What does one actually do with a chemistry degree?

I'm sure more than one person is going to sit you down and say, "Just follow your passion." On the surface, that sounds like decent advice. Who doesn't want to do their passion for a career? But I'm here with my big-brotherly advice to tell you it's bullshit. That kind of thinking makes it sound like your passion is out there somewhere, maybe hidden in a tree or under a rock, and all it requires is climbing enough trees or turning over enough rocks to find it. One day, when you least expect it --there will be your Passion. It'll be shiny and exciting and the solution to all your professional problems for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way.

The only way you're going to "find" your passion is if you stick with something for long enough to actually build some skills and expertise. It's not about finding the perfect thing for you right now. By picking a major that you're interested in you're already on the right path. You're avoiding the multi-year search for the "perfect path." Good. You're on a track and that's the first step. But what do you do next?

At this stage in the game, your focus should be on building the skills needed to move forward in your area of study. All of those things that your classmates find annoying or really hard -- those are the things you should master. The stronger you are in the basic skills of your profession the better foundation you'll have for tackling bigger questions later on. When you get things wrong on a test, find out why they're wrong. The hard question at the end of the problem set that nobody seem to get right; figure it out.

Once you've developed the habits to truly become a master of the techniques and skills that allow you to do well you must turn your attention to a question. Instead of plotting out a career path based on a specific job, pick a question that fascinates you. Figure out what you should do, what classes you should take, what skills you need, and what connections will help you answer that question and let that guide your decisions. Chances are you aren't going to feel passionate about a "job". But a question -- a question that burns at the base of your skull -- that will sustain you into a truly interesting career.

When it comes to passion most of us have been using the wrong verb. "Finding" seems to be the verb of choice when it really should be "building" or "developing". When you get to my age (you know, the ripe old age of 25) you begin to see the difference between people who are looking for a passion (most haven't found it) and those who have developed a passion (they're some of the happiest and most interesting people you'll meet). You've got plenty of time to change your mind and make mistakes. Just always remember that you're constantly building your passion and that conceptualizing your future career as some kind of proverbial game of hide-and-seek will likely leave you looking under rocks and climbing trees. You're a chemistry major -- not a professional tree climber and rock explorer. Get in there and build the skills that will let you develop, not find, your passion in that domain.

Have fun in your first year of school and try to make as many mistakes as possible. Mistakes imply action, and like a good hockey player, it's easier to change directions when you're already moving.

Good luck dude,


edit: A few people have expressed disappointment that I appear to be criticizing my brother's major choice in this letter. I apologize for not being clearer in my writing-- that's not what I'm trying to say at all! I'm just saying that he shouldn't worry about finding a specific passion within chemistry right now. If he focuses on building general skills and abilities relevant to his major he will end up building himself a passion. I'm super proud of him and excited to have a chemist in the family!

What is your message to someone starting college this fall? What do you wish you had known when you started your freshman year of college? Interested in this conceptualization of passion? Read more from Cal Newport at Study Hacks -- the writer who first turned me on to this new way of thinking about passion.