Do What You Love - Damn the Economics

Last Updated Aug 19, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

It's fashionable in today's tight job market for parents and career advisers to steer college students toward a "practical" major -- one that leads to a career in lucrative fields such as finance and law, or where job openings will be bountiful, such as health care and technology. But that may be panning for gold in the wrong stream.

Sure, if your children really don't have any idea what they want to study, go ahead and encourage them to enroll in business school. Maybe they'll love statistical analysis and be able to buy their first BMW before they're 25. If that works, get some lottery tickets while you're at it because you're on a roll.

There will come a time for your nearly adult children to focus on their earning potential, and soon enough; but it isn't now -- not while they are 18 or 20 and still trying to discover who they are. The best advice is for them to take a variety of courses that hold some appeal, and let their passions emerge. Then, if they sink their teeth into a related field, the rest will come.

Critics of this approach make some good points; dream chasing should give way to a more practical job search if things aren't working out by the time your kids are on the back side of their 20s -- much earlier if they are simply procrastinating. But there is a strong body of research that supports the study-what-you-love argument.

Much of this research comes from the University of Rochester's Edward Deci, a noted professor of psychology who has been studying human motivation for four decades. I spoke with Professor Deci at length for a book I'm writing about kids and money, and I came away absolutely convinced that far too many parents and advisers are pushing students down the path of materialism at the expense of genuine happiness.

What Deci has found in a series of studies is that people who chase the wealth wagon in fields that hold no intrinsic appeal experience higher stress and less fulfillment -- regardless of how impressive their bank accounts become. He found that:

• Students who study what they love learn more and retain the information longer.

• Students who are asked to perform a task that they enjoy say it is less enjoyable when they are required, or rewarded with money, to perform the same task.

• Students who are allowed to choose a task perform better at it than those who are required to do the same task.

• Young people in the workplace who enjoy their job advance faster and earn more than those who are in the same job just for the money.

And on, and on.

The real shame, says Deci, is that even counselors at his school, who should understand the importance of passion, too often steer students toward careers with the best job prospects whether a student likes the field or not. A better model for success, he says, is "living in a way that's consistent with your intrinsic goals, which leads to performing better, feeling better and doing better."

Thank you, professor. Class dismissed.

Photo by Neuble from Flickr

  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.