It’s normal for kids to ask questions, but as we were touring college campuses this summer, our middle child hit us with a doozy: “Does this school have an engineering program?”
This might not have stopped some parents in their tracks, but to me, it was a shock. Engineering is a fine career path, but frankly, it’s not my kid. He’s the artistic one in our family, the funny one who plays guitar and, most importantly, he hates math. Where was this coming from?
It turned out he had somehow gotten the message that becoming an engineer was going to be the only way to get a job. At 17, with a whole world of opportunity in front of him, he became fixated on the idea of a singular path to success.
There’s so much pressure on kids today to choose a viable career path while they’re still in high school. When you add the cost of education, uncertain job markets, and anxiety around the future of work, picking the right program at the right college can be overwhelming — not just for kids, but parents, too (even celebrities aren’t immune).
But as a French major who is now at the helm of a tech firm, I’m living proof that what you study in college doesn’t need to define your career. As I look to the future, as a dad and a CEO, I’ve come up with a few pieces of advice I’m hoping will tone down the pressure for my kids and help them get the most out of those college years.
You don’t have to know before you go
When I was a teenager stressing about my next step, my parents reassured me that an undergraduate degree doesn’t have to define your future. In fact, it shouldn’t.
From their perspective, college was less about learning job skills and landing a career than it was about learning how to learn: developing critical thinking skills, exposing yourself to new ideas, and discovering how to communicate and defend your thoughts. My parents felt those lessons would be the most valuable in helping me find a suitable career path, and they were right. I couldn’t see how at the time, but my French degree was critical in helping me learn about the world, and it eventually led me to a career in business leadership.
I’ve passed this advice onto my own kids.
Yes, there are some jobs that need very specific training from day one. But as an employer, I’ve learned that most technical skills are ultimately teachable; it’s much more important that new hires know themselves and know how to communicate, think critically, and problem solve.
Take a leap out of your comfort zone
There’s a reason many schools have broad curriculum requirements — diversity in your studies is only going to make you a more well-rounded person. And when you enter the workforce, chances are you will have to wear multiple hats and work with a diverse range of people. I know my company is always seeking out talent who can bring holistic experience to the table.
College is full of opportunities to broaden your horizons and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives — and not just in class. Join clubs, take a semester abroad, go to campus events where you’ll be the odd one out, and get used to putting yourself in places where you’re a little bit uncomfortable. If you’re studying STEM, take a comparative literature class to learn how to interpret abstract thoughts and ideas; if you’re studying arts, get a grounding in logic by taking a computer science course.
To that end, choosing a college that is in a different community and has a different demographic than where you grew up can help you meet people with varied backgrounds, experiences, and ideas about the world.
I grew up in a town where almost everyone lived and looked like me, so I applied to large, public universities so I could meet and connect with people from all walks of life. My eldest son, who grew up near Boston, is now getting a totally different experience at UC Berkeley. Getting out of your comfort zone can inform your education more than any lecture ever could.
Don’t just attend class — really show up
There’s no way around it: the increasing cost of college has only amplified the pressure to make the most of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean having a perfect attendance record or burying your nose in books (or screens). Earning top marks doesn’t always mean you’re learning the most valuable lessons and — spoiler alert — no employer is going to care if you get a 3.9 instead of a 4.0.
Most companies want people to step up to the plate, and lead by example in taking initiative to get things done. College is a great place to learn to do that, whether it’s by starting a club, organizing a protest, or participating fully in class discussions through respectful debate.
That being said, I realize this comes more naturally to some people than others — and to be clear, it’s not about taking up all the oxygen in the room and dominating the conversation. It’s about truly participating in every opportunity, sitting in front, raising your hand, and learning to hone your voice and speak up for what you believe in.
Make it your own
My three kids are all very different from one another — and they’re different from my wife and I. Their college experiences will each be unique. My eldest is studying computer science; my youngest just announced he wants to do a gap year. And, after toying with the idea of engineering, my middle son decided environmental policy might be more in line with his interests. They may all change their minds, or their directions, along the way. That’s OK, too. Life is full of twists and turns — that’s part of the journey.
Ultimately, my hope isn’t that they follow in my footsteps, or even become business leaders. At the end of the day, I want my kids to become competent, emotionally intelligent people who care about the world and are curious about it. I want them to learn to ask smart questions and open their hearts and minds to the views of others with both a sense of self and empathy.
These are qualities that I value as a father, and as a CEO they’re also the qualities I know will take them far in their careers — whatever those happen to be.
Originally published on Business Insider.
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