The Most Useful “Useless” Thing You’ll Ever Do
Imagine yourself in this scenario: you just graduated high school, and are currently talking with a group of your friends, when suddenly someone asks, “What are you going to major in?” You feel a sense of dread filling your body as everyone shares what they plan on doing. Business management, nursing, marketing, biology, engineering… then it’s your turn. Clearing your throat nervously, you quietly squeak out, “art history.” Everyone pauses for a moment, then someone asks, “What is that?” “Well,” you reply, “it’s a major in the College of Humanities and—.” “Oh cool,” interrupts a friend, and then the conversation turns back to how Johnny wants to become a successful CEO, Patricia has hopes of being a news anchor, and all the while you are thinking, “How am I ever going to get a successful career with my major?”
Does this situation feel familiar? I know the feeling. Wanting to major in something you are truly passionate about, but seems abstract, “out there,” or just plain fake to other people; not knowing what career options are open to you through this major; feeling inferior to your peers because they have their lives planned out and are majoring in things that people have actually heard of… the list goes on and on.
I remember when I graduated high school, I wanted to major in comparative literature. (I know, what is that?) Reading, writing, analyzing, and, yes, comparing literature were things I loved to do. But, once I found out my friends were going into “real” majors, like the ones in the scenario, I figured I needed to do the same. So I changed my major and started telling everyone I wanted to major in Business Management (fancy, right?) I did some research, and decided I could do alright with this major. I forced myself to believe that I would enjoy it and thought about how “successful” I would be in the business world, but overall I exhausted myself trying to change my passions of reading and writing into those of understanding the economy and trying new marketing techniques.In other words, I was trying to change myself. Coming out of this experience, I now realize that it is ok to be different from your peers. It is ok to want to study things like English, classics, art history, comparative literature, foreign languages, creative writing, and any other major offered in the College of Humanities!
Choosing a major within the College of Humanities will not leave you with limited or “unsuccessful” career options because you define success for yourself! Additionally, any major in that college will help you become proficient at a versatile, sought-after skill set that emphasizes writing, speaking, and interacting with different cultures, all the while incorporating a broad perspective. It was only after realizing these things that I decided to pursue my initial dream of majoring in comparative literature, and I hope that as you read this you will chase after your dream major, no matter what other people think.
So what makes a job successful? Turns out, it all depends on you! First off, let’s define successful! According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, successful is defined as either 1) “achieving the results wanted or hoped for” or 2) “having gotten or achieved wealth, respect, or fame” (Merriam-Webster). So as you can see, in general the word “successful” is interpreted two different ways. But when we apply that word to our own personal lives, it is very subjective. This is when we have to ask ourselves “How do I define success in my personal life? Or “In what situations do I find myself feeling the most successful?” Some people define success as being truly happy with what they are doing. Others feel more successful when they are raking in the cash, or when they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, or when they set a specific goal and meet that goal. What’s important is how YOU define success. Don’t make decisions about your major and future career options based on what other people perceive as “successful!” Find out what makes you feel accomplished, victorious even, and then you can make decisions for you and you alone.
As you do this, keep in mind that you can individually define success in more than one way! One can be happy in their job but also be making lots of money, or completing goals while contributing to a bigger picture. There is no limit to what you can accomplish if you make your success personal- there will be no one to please but yourself. Going back to my own experience, after I had defined things that made me, as an individual, feel successful— being satisfied with my job, feeling like I was making a difference, and being able to maintain that job while supporting my future family— I was able to choose the major I really desired without any qualms, and from there narrow down what I wanted in a future career. But not everyone is free from qualms, and there is no problem with that! Addressing your fears is the first step in getting rid of them.
The three fears people most commonly have about a Humanities degree and finding a career afterwards are that the majors are too abstract, one will not obtain any applicable skills, and Humanities majors will either become a teacher of their art or settle for a low paying job. All of these are addressed in an article by Steven Waechter titled “Why Liberal Arts Degrees are Useless.” Steven claims that “Almost all kids who are chasing their dumb dreams in college would be better majoring in accounting and IT,” and those who don’t are “hiding away in the collegiate land of Humanities make-believe” (Waechter). These stereotypes make majoring in the Humanities seem pointless and unattractive, but I am here to tell you that none of those things are true!
When people accuse a major of being too abstract, they are nine times out of ten criticising the ideas brought up in class discussions. Waechter proves this by claiming that “the course matter [is] conspiracy theories… dripping with post-modernist…nonsense” (Waechter). I am going to be honest with you: occasionally ideas discussed in class do not coincide with what most people have been taught to believe! But this is all part of gaining a broad perspective. How could one effectively be an unbiased writer with only a knowledge of the popular opinion of society? How could one speak persuasively without an understanding of what is behind closed minds and one-sided opinions? Only seeing the world through a single perspective leads to missed learning, missed friendships, and missed growth! In the words of Siri Hustvedt, a popular novelist and poet, “Each person does see the world in a different way. There is not a single, unifying, objective truth. We’re all limited by our perspective” (Siri Hustvedt Quotes). If we gain a broader perspective, we will be more free, more open-minded, less limited in what we can think— what we can become! A major in the College of Humanities provides us with an advantage of insight. Is being aware of and open to the different perspectives of the literal world we live in too abstract?
“STEM graduates, as well as those from Accounting programs, learned actual skills in their studies. Humanities majors learned only ‘soft skills’ like writing, and ‘critical thinking.’ All useless majors teach the same ‘soft skills’” (Waechter). How does that statement make you feel? Attacked? Me too. I have never completely understood any concept in the STEM field—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics don’t make sense in my head. What I love and what I am proficient at are those “soft skills”, and they are useful, despite what the majority of the world thinks. You may be wondering what exactly these soft skills are, and I don’t blame you. The term “soft skills”, even when surrounded by context, does not give one any ideas of what skills might be in that category!
I am currently taking a class that teaches me three main categories of soft skills, why they are applicable in the real world, and how I can personally take advantage of their applicability with my major. Some of them include communicating effectively through writing critically and speaking persuasively; synthesizing ideas through gathering and interpreting information; and navigating cultures by developing cultural literacy and language proficiency (Damron). Do any one of those soft skills sound useless and inapplicable to you? Steven is convinced that “any major that has no arithmetic at all is likely to be a massive waste of time…if you hardly ever add, subtract, divide, or multiply, your major is worthless” (Waechter). But tell me, how often are you going to use math in your everyday life? Adversely, how often do you communicate with others? Produce ideas? Encounter people from other cultures? Every day. Every SECOND of every day. There is never a time when you are not doing at least one of these things. So why not master these skills?
Quick— off the top of your head, think of a potential career you can have as a graduate from the College of Humanities. Was the first career you thought of a teacher? While you may be right, there are countless other career opportunities available for a Humanities graduate! Now that we know soft skills are indeed applicable, we can realize that the possibilities are endless. Don’t ever think that the soft skills you acquire through your major are hopeless. George Anders, an American business journalist who graduated from Stanford, recently wrote a book titled You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. In this book, he addresses how the fast-paced business world needs more people with soft skills when he says:
Curiosity, creativity, and empathy aren’t unruly traits that must be reined in to ensure success. Just the opposite. The human touch has never been more essential in the workplace than it is today. You don’t have to mask your true identity to get paid for your strengths. You don’t need to apologize for the supposedly impractical classes you took in college or the so-called soft skills you have acquired. The job market is quietly creating thousands of openings a week for people who can bring a humanist’s grace to our rapidly evolving high-tech future (Anders).
If you choose a major in the College of Humanities, you WILL be needed. Your skills will be invaluable to any workplace you aspire to be in.
I know it’s hard to feel validated in pursuing your dreams when everyone around you is expecting you to fail. Of course you will fail—everyone fails at one point or another. However, that doesn’t mean you are fulfilling the hateful words of others when you do! What you are doing is carving a path to success— your PERSONAL success— and if failure comes along the way, there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what you do with that failure that really matters. Are you going to give up the first time your plans don’t go perfectly? Or are you going to pick yourself up, dust off your britches, and set out with a stronger determination to make a life for yourself doing what you love? With our new definition of success, and the knowledge that a major in the College of Humanities is NOT abstract and WILL provide you with applicable skills you can use in any career you want, I challenge you to look past your doubts about majoring in the Humanities. Instead, chase after your desired major with all the energy you can muster. And if you do happen to fail along the way, remember these words from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Be courageous. Be yourself. Nothing will be able to stop you.