In praise of choosing an 'impractical' major
I am an artist.
When I was five, people reacted to this statement the same way they might have if I had announced I was a princess, or as my roommate’s cousin once did, a football. At age twelve, it was often met with knowing smiles and kind exclamations of “Oh! How nice. I can’t draw a stick figure.” At eighteen, I started to get the head tilt, the fading smiles, and hear the question, “And what are you going to do with that?” Today, at twenty-two, I begin to see the sorrow in people’s eyes as they realize that the smart, promising young woman before them, who got into college on a full academic scholarship, who is preparing to graduate with both university and departmental honors and a near-perfect GPA, who they were sure would do Great Things, is still on “that art thing.”
And let me tell you: these reactions used to really bother me. And let me tell you also: I’m over it. Majoring in art was not a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. I am not entering the professional art world blind. I had other options. I’ve been offered opportunities to become an engineer, a financial planner, a singer, and a veterinarian. I considered each and every one of these options carefully. And ultimately, I decided that none of them was right for me. Art was right for me, and I stuck with it. These are the reasons why I am glad I became an artist, and why if you’re considering an impractical major, choosing to go with it might be the most practical choice you can make.
You’ll get really good at it
No matter what major/career path you choose, you will have to spend a lot of time with it. Say you choose industrial design, and it’s kind of cool, and you like it okay, but it just doesn’t make your heart sing. You spend enough time on it to keep a decent GPA and graduate cum laude and get a job. Now what? You’re a decent industrial designer with zero passion. How far is that going to take you? Now let’s imagine you majored in oboe performance, like you wanted to. Every day when you walk into class, your mood lifts up just a little bit, and you play with more joy today than you did yesterday. And after class, you lock yourself in a practice room for six hours, not because you have to, but because that is legitimately more appealing to you than going out for a beer. Now when you graduate, you’re going to be the best version of yourself you can be.
You’ll be happier.
This one is obvious, and probably the main argument you gave your parents when you first told them you wanted to major in dance instead of biology. This isn’t likely to convince Mom and Dad, but it’s still important. If you’re happy, you are going to do better work and have a healthier life.
Your degree is what you make it
Here’s what you might be telling yourself: you won’t learn much in that degree and you won’t be an appealing hiring prospect when you go looking for a job. The fact is that this may or may not be true, because there is so much more information on any subject on the internet and in books than you could ever learn in a lecture hall. While the computer science degree may look good on paper, if your heart isn’t in it, you might not have learned as much as you would have if you majored in something you loved and therefore spent most of your free time studying.
Say you major in computer science, figuring every company needs an IT guy. This is true, so you get a job when you graduate. But then when you go to work, you find that most of the people you are working with actually love writing code and combing the internet for reports on the newest computer thing. Even though you have a degree, you don’t know half as much as the people who spent their time studying outside of class just for fun, and even though you were a decent hiring prospect, you just aren’t contributing that much.
It really is possible to make money
You just have to know how to do it. There is WAY more information out there than what you can learn in class. Find ways that the thing you love can be useful to other people. Sometimes the obvious choice is the best one, like if you are a guitar player, maybe being a recording artist is your best bet, but maybe it’s writing about music as a critic, or maybe it’s talent scouting for a record label. You have to know what’s out there before you decide.
Once you’ve decided how you want to make money in your chosen field, look for testimonies from people who are doing it. Google “how to get a job as a talent scout” and read what you find. Maybe you need to have a youtube presence. Maybe you need to be attending certain events. Find out, and do it. And don’t wait to graduate before you start. I applied for probably fifty gallery shows and residencies last semester and in the end, I mostly had rejections. But I also had one month long residency in France and a photograph projected in an exhibition at the Louvre. You never know until you go for it.
You will give your life more value
Of course, every life has inherent value. That isn’t what I’m talking about. I mean that if you do the thing that you most love, you will contribute more to the world than you ever could doing something that you only just like. Whatever you do, whether it’s a practical job like something in the sciences or an impractical job like something in the arts, you are attempting to make the world a better place. I paint because that’s how I best know how to express the things I need to say, and I hope that the things I am saying can help change the world for the better. You get to choose how you want to change the world. Pick the best one for you.
Elizabeth Shanahan is in her final year as a BFA student at Appalachian State University. She has had work shown at venues such as the See Me Gallery in New York and the Louvre Museum in Paris, and believes that any career can be a good one with a few thousand hours of research, frustrated weeping, and hugs from your grumpy orange cat. Follow her on Twitter @shanahanpaints, Instagram @elizabeth.shanahan, and check out her website, elizabethshanahan.com.
[Image courtesy Universal Pictures]