Choosing the Major

24 minutes, 1 link


Updated June 8, 2022

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I will never forget how Richard Feynman described the instance he first encountered the cyclotron, a particle accelerator, at Princeton University.

MIT had built a new cyclotron while I was a student there, and it was just beautiful! The cyclotron itself was in one room, with the controls in another room. It was beautifully engineered. The wires ran from the control room to the cyclotron underneath in conduits, and there was a whole console of buttons and meters. It was what I would call a gold-plated cyclotron.

Now I had read a lot of papers on cyclotron experiments, and there weren’t many from MIT. Maybe they were just starting. But there were lots of results from places like Cornell, and Berkeley, and above all, Princeton. Therefore what I really wanted to see, what I was looking forward to, was the PRINCETON CYCLOTRON. That must be something!

So first thing on Monday, I go into the physics building and ask, “Where is the cyclotron—which building?”

“It’s downstairs, in the basement—at the end of the hall.”

In the basement? It was an old building. There was no room in the basement for a cyclotron. I walked down to the end of the hall, went through the door, and in ten seconds I learned why Princeton was right for me—the best place for me to go to school. In this room there were wires strung all over the place! Switches were hanging from the wires, cooling water was dripping from the valves, the room was full of stuff, all out in the open. Tables piled with tools were everywhere; it was the most god awful mess you ever saw. The whole cyclotron was there in one room, and it was complete, absolute chaos!

It reminded me of my lab at home.

Like all good jokes, the punch line of that story is at the end, when Feynman compares the god-awful mess to the laboratory he set up at his home, at the age of seven, to tinker with and fix broken radios.

Surely you’re joking!

Richard Feynman* can best be described as a physicist who broke all stereotypes of what it means to be one. He played the bongos, engaged in petty pranks, and came up with his own notations for sine, cosine, and tangent.* In 1999, he was regarded as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time by Physics World* and he is still talked about with reverence and fondness in the scientific community. Not surprisingly, he won the Nobel Prize in 1965 jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga for their work in quantum electrodynamics.

He is remembered by many for his contributions to physics and quantum computing, but I like to remember him most for his childlike love for science. I read his semi-autobiographical book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, back in 2009 when my brother suggested I read it. I fell in love with the unadulterated vocabulary of the book that so glaringly conveyed the lifelong excitement he felt for physics, and more so, science.

Stuck in the Middle

If you’re lucky, you might feel the same about your field. You might already have a strong opinion of what you want to study and research on. If you do, feel free to skip this chapter. A lot of students do end up pursuing their graduate school in the same domain they pursued their bachelor’s in. From our personal experience, though, we know that is not always the case.

I graduated with a master’s in Management Science and Engineering, after completing my undergraduate in Chemical Engineering. Sai switched from Mechanical Engineering to Engineering Management. It’s a good story to share with people and motivate them to trust their gut feeling, now. However, when we were actively undergoing that conundrum, it was far from easy.

storyI spent months wandering the basketball court and empty roads inside NIT Trichy wondering if I was making the right choice. My parents certainly didn’t think so, but they supported me anyway, for which I’m eternally grateful.

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I had spent two summers and a winter working inside laboratories at various universities (IIT-Madras, Indian Institute of Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison) on research related to renewable energy. I was also doing very well inside the class, securing the top rank consistently. This isn’t to flaunt; rather to show you just how confused I felt when what seemed to be the logical next step didn’t seem like the right one.

Back then, all I knew was that I wanted to move away from research and explore the world of business and management with no prior experience, except for serving as the founder and head of a social organization titled AIESEC in my university. Below is a passage from an essay I wrote in 2016:

The decision of pursuing a degree in management has been the biggest change in my life so far. Until a few months ago, I thought I knew exactly what to do after graduation. I had a strong background to apply for one of the top schools for a PhD. But what after that? Would I feel satisfied at the end of each day while I return back to my apartment? Would I be able to lie to myself for 5 years? These were questions that haunted me, every day.

It’s excruciating when what you want to do derails from what you should do. I began questioning if the past three years of my life were wasted chasing after the wrong dream. I’m positive my friends and peers thought I was committing a grave mistake. Some of them were even vocal about it. In hindsight, however, I could not have been more right. I have the utmost respect for doctoral candidates, but I know I would have made a very average and unhappy researcher if I was confined to a lab for five years. I’m still learning what it takes to build products and relationships with people, but I already know this is where I can eventually be extraordinary.

You need to find the area where you can be extraordinary. Don’t settle for being average.

Let’s be clear about one thing: it will neither be easy nor pleasant to make this transition. However, in the long run, you will be incredibly thankful to yourself. We still wanted to make this process slightly easier for you by introducing a renowned concept that can come in handy in these situations.

Finding Your Ikigai

Dan Buettner,* a three-time Guinness World Record holder and best-selling author, conducted a long experiment to find out how people who live to be more than 100 years old, called centenarians, manage to do it. His team spoke to the centenarians from four Blue Zones, areas where they found the most number of people who lived the longest.* One of the zones included the northern part of Okinawa, a prefecture in Japan made up of 161 islands. Aside from a plant-based diet and a tight-knit community, he found out that what set them apart was their practice of ikigai.*

Ikigai* (pronounced ee-key-guy) is a Japanese word that loosely means the reason you get up in the morning. It encompasses the idea that happiness is more than money and titles. According to a book written on this concept by Hector Garcia and Albert Liebermann,* “The origin of the word ikigai goes back to the Heian period (794 to 1185). Clinical psychologist and avid expert of the ikigai evolution, Akihiro Hasegawa released a research paper in 2001 where he wrote that the word ‘gai’ comes from the word ‘kai’ which translates to ‘shell’ in Japanese. During the Heian period, shells were extremely valuable, so the association of value is still inherently seen in this word.”

This intangible ideology is what gives you the sense of purpose and meaning that most people search for their entire life. It makes your life worthwhile, happy, and satisfactory.

But how do you find it?

The most actionable way to understand this idea is through a Venn diagram that comprises four categories as shown above: what you are good at, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you love. At their intersection, you supposedly find your ikigai.

Let’s look at each in some detail.

What You Are Good At

This quadrant is about trying to bring out both your natural and hard-earned talents.

thinkWhat part of your current job can you do effortlessly, without even thinking about it?

When was the last time someone gave you a compliment? What was it about?

More often than not, we have blind spots when it comes to our strengths and weaknesses. Melody Wilding, an executive coach and author who found her purpose by practicing ikigai,* writes, “Ironically, qualities about myself that I took for granted were precisely what others saw as unique and valuable. Instead of downplaying my knack for empathy, their comments nudged me to look deeper at how I could leverage my sensitivity as a strength and pivot my career to focus on coaching, teaching, and writing.”

So, as you are filling this quadrant, ask some of your closest friends and those who work with you about your strengths. Their answer might just surprise you.

What the World Needs

This quadrant is about trying to unearth what you care about and what you can contribute to the world, society, and your family.

thinkWhat was the last social cause you cared about deeply?

What would you contribute to immediately in your society if you had more time?

What do you think we can do now as a community to make 2030 better than 2020?

Whenever I think about this quadrant, I get reminded of something that Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said in an interview with Marc Benioff.* Below is a paraphrased version of his talk.

It became clear to me in my upper 30s that we are searching for a lifetime for our purpose. Early in life, you think your purpose is deciding your major in school. You choose your major and you graduate. But guess what? You still don’t know what your purpose is. So you keep looking, and you think maybe it’s about getting a job. But, no, it wasn’t that. And then maybe it becomes a promotion, maybe it becomes a marriage, maybe it becomes a child. And at some point, you recognize that the reason we are all here is to help somebody else.

That is the sole reason we are here.

What You Can Be Paid For

Whether you like it or not, you need to do something that brings the bread home. This quadrant is about trying to figure out what that something is.

thinkWhat exactly are you being paid for today?

If you’re not paid for something you do today, are other people being paid for the same activity?

Can you eventually be paid for it?

We live in an age where jobs that never existed a decade ago are heavily sought after today. Being a YouTuber went from a side-hobby to a serious job for many millennials.* Being an influencer on TikTok can earn you more than an entry-level Software Engineer role at Google.* Ten years from now, don’t be alarmed when you see jobs with titles like Drone Traffic Controller and AR Journey Builder.

The world is moving fast.

So think outside the box when you answer this question.

What You Love

Ah, we come to the most important quadrant of all. This quadrant is about helping you figure out what makes it all worth it.

thinkIf money didn’t matter, what would you spend your time doing?

When was the last time you were in a state of flow? (Remember Flow from the first chapter?)

What can you not shut up about?

Your passion may not always be the cause of things. I did not grow up dreaming of being an author one day. I grew up wanting to be a surgeon. I became an author after spending years learning to write and actually writing. The thousands of hours spent made me feel passionate about this craft, and now I cannot imagine not being an author. So don’t just look at things you feel passionate about without actually having spent time dipping your toes in them.

The Yearning Octopus

Have you ever realized how our incredibly complex brain makes it hard to follow a singular line of thought? We Homo sapiens underwent a mutation in the wiring of our brain about 70,000 years ago that gave us the ability to think. We didn’t just care about hunting for the next meal anymore. We didn’t restrict ourselves to the land we occupied. Nor did we stick to primitive tools to hunt down animals. Below is a passage taken from the best-seller Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.*

Beginning about 70,000 years ago, Homo sapiens began doing very special things. They drove the Neanderthals and all other human species not only from the Middle East, but from the face of the earth. Within a remarkably short period, Sapiens reached Europe and East Asia. About 45,000 years ago, they somehow crossed the open sea and landed in Australia—a continent hitherto untouched by humans. The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, and bows and arrows and needles. The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era, as does the first clear evidence for religion, commerce and social stratification. This constitutes the Cognitive Revolution. What caused it?

We’re not sure.

We have many theories, but no conclusive proof yet. The point, however, is that we slowly developed the neocortex in our brain, which gave us the ability to reason, make complex decisions, develop language, believe in fiction, and sacrifice short-term gratification for long-term gains.* It also gave us the ability to hold competing thoughts in our head and make hundreds of decisions every single day. This is why finding your ikigai is not a simple exercise.

Tim Urban, a famous long-form blogger,* captures this chaos well with what he calls The Yearning Octopus (which is really a pentapus, but we’re not complaining).*

Source: The Yearning Octopus. Urban, T. How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You). Wait But Why. November 6, 2019.

The Yearning Octopus posits that at any point in time, you have five micro-humans in your mind who each have their own agenda and demand your attention and cognitive resources.

While the Personal tentacle probes you to follow your passion and find meaning in what you do, the Social tentacle wants you to follow the path that will earn your parents’ respect. Your Moral tentacle is deeply concerned about the well-being of the thousands of Syrian kids who are enslaved, but your Lifestyle tentacle thinks you should just relax and enjoy your own life sitting by the beach. All the while, your Practical tentacle is in panic mode because you don’t have enough money to pay the rent on Tuesday.

Everyone has a Yearning Octopus inside of them.

Mine would look different from yours.

And yours would look different from anyone else’s.

You will tend to rank the five tentacles based on your life experiences and beliefs, such that one of them always takes the upper hand. Your job is to identify how they are ranked inside your head and understand the motivation behind each of them. Maybe it is your mom masquerading as the Social tentacle and urging you to follow a career path that she never got a chance to. Maybe the Practical tentacle trumps all others because the 10-year-old you never forgot what it meant to live in poverty. It is crucial that you figure out which motivations are authentic and which are simply imposters. Urban urges you to ask yourself:

Do you treat the words of your external influences as information, held and considered by an authentic inner you, that you’ve carefully decided to embrace? Or are your influences themselves actually in your brain, masquerading as inner you? Do you want the same thing someone else you know wants because you heard them talk about it, you thought about it alongside your own life experience, and you eventually decided that, for now, you agree? Or because you heard someone talk about what they want or fear, and you thought, ‘I don’t know shit and that person does, so if they say X is true, I’m sure they’re right’—and then you etched those ideas into your mind, never again feeling the need to question them?

Unearthing the answers to these questions and finding your ikigai requires doing something that no one really likes to do: introspection.

In its most basic sense, introspection is akin to visiting the dark and scary basement in your mind by asking yourself tough questions and observing your thoughts, with no judgement. Just observe what surfaces and take note of it, and repeat the experiment all over again. You can gain inspiration to do this by reading articles, such as the one written by Urban, and others found online.* There is no dearth of information in this age of information.

Know that however you do it, you can’t escape the dreaded activity of being alone with your thoughts.

Tying It All Together

actionComing back to our ikigai Venn diagram, begin filling in the quadrants. Take your time. It doesn’t have to be completed in an hour. Have a first stab at it, and come back again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Until you feel you have a stable, final version of it.

You will begin to see correlations and new possibilities between the various quadrants. Like me, you might have thought you were supposed to become a researcher, but all your thoughts on paper say otherwise. Whatever you come up with, find out the closest major that will get you there eventually. Your ikigai should be thought of as a north star. You might never reach there, but as long as you are tending towards it, all is well.

You aren’t right or wrong in picking one major over the other.

Even if you don’t end up picking the most optimal one (assuming it is possible to quantify this process), you know you picked one after careful thought. That already puts you in a better position than most people who live their life on autopilot.

Take Your Time and Find Your Path

We all know someone who derives pure joy from what they do. One of my best friends works 12 hours a day, including the weekends, at a healthtech startup in New York. Yet he enjoys his work deeply. If you’re lucky, you might feel this way about the domain that you’re in already. However, from personal experience, we know that’s not always the case. Sometimes we find ourselves following a path because we were good at it or because someone else thought it was the right path for us. You need to shrug off all those preconceptions and start from scratch.

Enter ikigai. An ideology that originated in Japan and percolated in the rest of the world over the past two decades. Ikigai is the sweet spot that resides at the intersection of what you are good at, what the world needs, what you can be paid for, and what you love. We posed a few questions for each of the quadrants that will help you figure out the answers to these. You don’t need to write down the answers right away. Take your time. This is not a simple problem.

At its core, ikigai requires you to introspect. That is not something we all enjoy because when we begin to introspect, we begin to find a lot of imposters in the basement of our mind. Even though we are in a constant five-way tug-of-war between the various tentacles of the Yearning Octopus, one always takes the upper hand. To find out the motivation behind these creatures, you need to be alone with your thoughts.

There really is no optimal choice of major here. However, if you did all the above, you’re in a better position than most others who never cared to scratch the surface.

A Little Reflection on Choosing a Major

thinkWhat were you reminded of, if anything, about yourself, when you read the story of Richard Feynman?

Did you identify any blind spots after you asked your close friends about your strengths?

When were you last in a state of flow?

Did you find any imposters in the basement during your introspection?

Choosing the Universities41 minutes, 9 links

We’re back to decisions again. Think back to the most recent decision you made in your life. It doesn’t have to be a significant one. It can even be a trivial decision of purchasing a Classmate Octane Premium gel pen over a Pilot Retractable Premium gel pen. How much thought did you put into making this decision? Did you consider all possible factors: the tip type, material, color, grip type, weight, price, popularity? Did you assign weights to each factor and pick the pen that was mathematically the more optimal one? Unless you were conducting extensive research on developing a new pen for your company, or writing a thesis on the effects of one over the other, chances are you calculated a few pros and cons in your mind, such as cost and comfort, and picked the one that satisficed you.

That word is not a typo.

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