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What College? What Major? What Charity to Volunteer For? Don't Follow My Advice! Or Anyone Else's!

Frank Wu

Originally published by Frank Wu on LinkedIn: What College? What Major? What Charity to Volunteer For? Don't Follow My Advice! Or Anyone Else's!

People ask me all the time what college to attend, what major to choose, even what charity to volunteer for, in order to improve their chances of acceptance to law school. This has happened three times in the past week. I want to help folks.

Although it is much easier to gain admission to even selective law schools at this moment than anyone would believe, my new friends' query generalizes to medical school, graduate school, their first job, and so on. I do not begrudge them. They are earnest. No doubt I was the same as them when I was at that stage of life.

Yet I am pained. We have done wrong the next generation. I am astonished by how instrumental people are. They seem unable to envision an alternative approach to soliciting advice, much less to living life. I protest on their behalf: they appear willing to do what they are told, on the assumption that there is a sequence of steps that guarantees happiness. At some point, somebody has misled them.

The problem is that individuals in contemporary culture are rendering themselves indifferent to the intrinsic qualities of a college, major, or charity. They perceive education and giving back explicitly as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. The distinction between what is intrinsically worthwhile and instrumentally useful is no longer much appreciated.

I sound naive at best, scolding at worst, when I insist it is better to attend a school that is good for it’s own sake or select a major in a field of interest. Perhaps I am a naive scold, but I would not wish to lead a life in which every decision has an ulterior motive. The conventional reply would be that a more elite school might confer a modest advantage, but being the valedictorian of the fine public university probably more so. If you are willing to major in a discipline solely for an edge in the next competition, and you can ace it, be a mathematician or physicist; as between history and political science, either way you will be one among many.

I have to draw the line with the idea of showing up at a charity to put time in, not to benefit the cause, but out of self-interest. Even leaving aside principled qualms, it isn’t practical. Nobody will be impressed by a short stint at a non-profit, which looks like the resume padding it is. You won’t be able to stick it out for a decent period if you are there only for your own advancement.

The other problem, no less acute, is that nobody with whom I am acquainted who is both successful in material terms and satisfied in spiritual terms ever declares that their path through the vicissitudes of experience was pre-determined and sure. It’s the opposite. The desire to check off a certain set of boxes does not lead to anything desirable. It only leads to an endless series of additional boxes — including the literal cubicle.

When I talk to people whom I admire, who serve as mentors, I have discovered that they share similar sentiments. Some of them are aggravated at the transactional nature of the relationship. They report with as much amusement as they can muster that they have been assigned people who want something specific from them, a tangible benefit such as an introduction to a third party or a job offer. The new norms of social media, and the expectations of the gig economy, have corrupted our ability to interact genuinely and without scheming.

I remind myself, however, that people who contact me look up to me. I am obligated to them. Goodwill is crucial, and it is mutual. Any response must be positive, not peevish. As a teacher, I rally for my students. I regret we have messed up the world they will inherit.

The best I can do is to assure people and support them. I encourage them to be independent, critical, and daring. They should not do what their parents tell them, simply because their parents told them — though they shouldn’t not do it in reaction, since their parents are wiser than they give them credit for, which I realized as soon as I reached what I considered my parents’ age.

More than a few of the persons who request my guidance likely have their course in mind. What they need is permission. They are — or they were — creative, idealistic, and ambitious. Somebody else, not me I hope, has lectured them about playing it safe and avoiding risks. They have been beaten into submission. They will do as they are told to their own detriment.

From time to time, you do have to pay your dues doing something you’re not enthusiastic to be doing. But much more of the time, your real opportunities can be aligned with your true commitments if you try. Although we yearn for a purpose, we need not all yearn for an identical purpose. It is true that colleges and majors, and non-profits, are different. Choices lead to consequences. Some choices lead reliably to better consequences. To say a person should not make a decision for the wrong reason isn't to say they should make a decision for a bad reason.

My answer may be considered contrarian, because it is all about independence. My advice about advice, applicable to myself (yes, it’s a paradox), is: don’t follow advice.

Pursue your aspirations, whether the college or the major. and seek out the charity you care about. You will not be served well by serving others.