Dear English Majors,
I’m sorry to tell you that the path before you isn’t a straightforward one. But the good news is, there are no more straightforward paths for anyone. Except if you are willing to become a software engineer. In which case, it is not too late to major in that, especially if all you want out of life is to make a lot of money.
Here’s a story that might put that in perspective.
I was sitting in a conference room in the new building for the English department. A lot of my professors were there as well as a mix of students. We were going to talk about our futures. Specifically, what kind of futures us students would have as English majors. This was a few years before the recession and even then we knew, deep down, that the odds were against us.
I didn’t want to be an English major. Not at first. What I really wanted to be was an animator. Growing up, I drew a lot and watched a ton of cartoons. I would tape them and watch them after school and late into the night. All I kept thinking about was how great it would be to tell a story like that.
One of my proudest achievements in the eighth grade was winning an art contest. I got a blue ribbon and everything. In high school, I took some art classes during my senior year and my teacher wrote, “I’m so sorry I didn’t find you earlier” on one of my assignments. My parents always indulged me, but they didn’t encourage me. When I started seriously considering applying to art school, they told me that art just wasn’t practical.
I will always look back at that crossroads in my life and wonder, “What if?”
I knew that my parents did what they did out of fear. But that fear killed a dream, and that’s something I’ll always have to live with.
So if not art school, then what else? My mom told me she thought I would do well at law school. I wasn’t jazzed about law school and I knew nothing about law. I just knew that the prerequisite was a degree in humanities.
But I couldn’t really find a good alternative, so I thought I would try. That’s why during my first semester at Loyola University, I decided to major in political science.
I hated every minute of it.
So if not political science, then what else? If I couldn’t major in art and design, what could I possibly do for the next four years that wouldn’t make me feel like I was dying on the inside?
I figured being an English major would be my best bet. Because if I couldn’t draw, then at least I could spend time reading and writing (my other two favorite things to do).
“But what can you do if you’re an English major?” That was the burning question the head of the English department was going to answer. I don’t remember everything she said, but I do remember her ending the meeting with, “Anything you want.”
There are a few moments in life when you know that adults are lying to you. That answer was ambiguous at best and irresponsible at worst. It gave no guidance, no direction. Our futures were blank and that wasn’t really comforting.
So where am I now? I work as a content editor for Amazon. Specifically, for Goodreads, which was acquired by Amazon. Did being an English major get me here? Tough to say. I’ve come to realize that your major only plays a small part of where you end up after college.
What really matters is the support network you have. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without my husband. He saw me through the growing pains of my twenties, stuck it out through all my trials and errors, and still thinks of our life together as an adventure. He’s the one person in my life that made me realize that you need someone who can weather your storms with you.
And if you don’t have that kind of support, can you rely on yourself? Do you have the willingness to fail and move past it? Do you have enough self-awareness to understand what matters to you, enough self-trust to make informed choices, and enough self-compassion to live with your decisions?
That’s essentially how growth happens.
And I hate to say that it’s an incredibly slow and frustrating process. You will never be perfect at it, but in time, you’ll be able to pick it up more quickly. It’s also a process that will never end until you die, so if you can come to terms with that now, you can save yourself a lot of pain down the road.
Leaving campus that day made me realize that no one can give you answers. But it was the beginning of what I call my “inner compass” development. I’m still working on mine, but it’s gotten better over the years. Essentially it’s the voice in your head that says, “I don’t really know what I want yet, but I know it isn’t this.” Keep listening to this voice. Prioritize this voice above all others. You are essentially learning how to make your own decisions.
When I boarded the train back home to the suburbs, I kept thinking about the options in front of me. Did I want to pursue academia? The inner compass said no. Did I want to pursue law school? Definitely not. Then what the heck did I want to do?
I thought about how I would feel in a job that would let me write all day. And that’s been the true north of my life so far. Now, the winds always change and fate has a peculiar sense of humor. In fact, I’ve realized that I do much better in life when I don’t obsessively plan for things. But writing is where my inner compass is currently at and if it changes, then I’m willing to at least see where the compass takes me.
That’s probably the last useful bit you’ll need in order to get through life after college — the willingness to be flexible at a moment’s notice. Opportunity rarely knocks on your front door. No, opportunity usually stands on another train platform going in the opposite direction. Then it flips you off as it yells, “Catch me if you can, motherfucker!”
So how far are you willing to go to chase after it? Are you willing to give up your ticket? To put this on less metaphorical terms, is your inner compass telling you to leave your hometown? Your home state? Your home country? Alternatively, is your inner compass telling you stay put? That there may be something in front of you that you’ll regret if you leave it behind?
Just how far are you willing to go? Or in other words, what are you willing to sacrifice?
So, dear English majors: I’m here to tell you that the path isn’t straightforward, but you can use that to your advantage. If you play your cards right, you will experience all kinds of things that not many people will get to — things that are surprising, things that will keep you humble, things that will keep you grateful. You will learn from different perspectives and cultivate an open mind.
And in the end, I think that’s what being an English major is all about.
But I promise that if you stick it out, if you’re willing to remember what it was that made you take the path in the first place, if you keep a healthy balance between your dreams and your doubts, if you develop your inner compass enough to tell you what your true north is, then you can be more than just “anything you want” you can be “who you were meant to be.”