For all the 18 year olds anticipating next year

This comment is totally and completely accurate.

Right now, I’m mainly anticipating wrapping up this year, but I’m also advising first year students, and have visited with prospective students. They fall into two general categories: 1) the absolutely certain who know exactly where they’re going (lots of pre-meds in this group), and 2) the ones who have no idea, and are worried that they’re supposed to have their whole life planned out by now. I tell (1) to embrace change, find what you love, and do that. I tell (2) that nobody knows what they’re doing, we all wing it as we go along, and have fun finding out where life is going to take you.

It’s not as if I ever knew what I was doing. I’m 65 and still looking forward to surprises.


  1. wzrd1 says

    I’ve had only one true constant in my life.
    I’ve changed careers several times, advancing each time to become a subject matter expert in that field. I don’t anticipate that changing anytime soon.

  2. cartomancer says

    I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I was 18. I wanted to be 14 again.

    And, what do you know, almost two decades later I still do!

  3. raven says

    We had a saying in college.

    If you want to make god laugh, tell her your plans.
    Life is what happens when you are on your way to do something else.

  4. ANB says

    Hell, many junior colleges are BETTER than universities, even well known ones. You actually get someone who’s a TEACHER and a subject matter expert.
    I still don’t know what I want to do, and I’m changing careers again (at 62).
    I’ve got a pretty splattered canvas, and most of it is mistakes. It’s better than a Jackson Pollock.

  5. Paul K says

    I’m 61 and still looking forward to surprises, too. In fact, if it weren’t for surprises, life wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. My wife and I recently finished the training needed to become foster parents with the goal of adoption. It may never happen (finding matches is difficult), but I look forward to the chance to again watch as a kid (or two) show us their surprises. Just the prospect is exciting.

  6. Oggie: Mathom says

    Going to junior college for a year worked really really well for me. I, like the others in my high sch\ool calculus class, wanted to be an engineer. I was good at the math. I got really good math grades. I did really well on the ACT. I was accepted at Drexel. I even got a scholarship to Drexel. I wasn’t sure. So I talked with Drexel, told the admissions couselor there what I was thinking, what my second thoughts were, and she set up a programme which would allow me to major in math at the local JuCo for a year and if I still wanted to go into engineering, I could. I would still spend four years at Drexel, but I kinda needed a year to think things through.

    I was good at math in college. And I noticed two things: it bored me, and I could not visualize what the numbers were saying. However, my history course (taught by a retired USArmy special forces sergeant and former CIA analyst (who had a PhD and spoke nine languages)) sparked something that had been missing in my life. So I became a genstud major at JuCo and then went to a very small liberal arts college up in New Hampshire to major in modern European history. I planned to become an intel analyst. Ended up a nation park ranger interpreting industrial history and have a had a great life so far.

    So, yeah, people who, at eighteen or nineteen, have is all planned out worry me. But, I also know that what they actually end up doing in life may or may not be close to what they majored in.

    I know a communications major who became a federal law enforcement officer. An accounting major who is very happy as a master mechanic for a large dealership. An electrical engineer major who works for a college finding ways to make data visually understandable to faculty and staff. A geologist who spent his retirement years teaching maritime history.

    So, yeah. Junior college (or community college) is a great way to dip your toes in lots of different waters.

  7. Hairhead, Still Learning at 59 says

    I turn 65 in two months. Much to my utter and total surprise, I am suddenly making more money than I ever have in my life! I mean, 3x more! And a big part of the reason is my previously higgedly-piggedly life, which has over time given me the skills I am being (suddenly) rewarded for now. The biggest irony?

    I am a vocational rehabilitation counsellor; I help injured persons imagine, find, and move into new careers.

    My life advice?

    Whatever you do, whether you planned it, whether it fell into your lap, whether it was given to you, do it whole hog! Dig into it, push it, experience it, learn from it in a self-aware manner. And don’t be afraid to change; change yourself, change your direction, your career, your surroundings, everything. The world has more possibilities than you can possibly know, anticipate, or account for. Everything you do in life, everything that happens, whether you count it failure, success, or something else, is valuable and useful in one way or another.

    Flexibility, self-aware learning, and taking on challenges are the keys to a life well-lived.

  8. says

    I’ve managed to work myself into a position in which I can gleefully succumb to my adhd. It turns out that’s not bad, so long as you no longer have another taskmaster.

  9. PaulBC says

    Community college is the best deal around in higher education. The credits are also usually transferrable to a 4 year college, so I don’t see any reason for anyone to feel bad about it.

  10. StevoR says

    Not sure how they compare to Amercian “community colleges” but doing a TAFE ( ) course on identifying native plants changed my life and opened my eyes metaphorically in a way that really did change how I saw the world aroudnd me – specifically plants but also .. much more.

    TAFE and WEA (Workers Educational Association) courses certainly have a lot of value and worth.

    I went to uni as well and enjoyed and learnt from that too. Many of our politicians who also went to uni when it was cheaper -even free – then went on to make university costly and inaccessible for others which it seems to be increasingly becoming now from what I gather.

  11. says

    Everything you do in life, everything that happens, whether you count it failure, success, or something else, is valuable and useful in one way or another.


    Also: generally your successes won’t matter very much, and neither will your failures. So don’t be so afraid of trying things because the slate gets wiped clean in good time, unless you’re playing on the historical stage (e.g: you are Napoleon Bonaparte) in which case your decisions have a large knock on effect.

    I think often of how much things mattered in high school that were so important and now neither I nor the people involved have anything but hazy memories. All these things are lost in time, like tears in the rain.

  12. Captain Kendrick says

    PZ, THANK you for posting this cartoon, and your comments — I passed this on to my daughter, she needs to see this and hear more thoughtful advice like what you had to say as an advisor. She is finishing up her freshman year at a state university, and seems mostly unhappy and uncertain so far. She is second guessing her choices, where she applied, where she ended up going, which major she is choosing, wondering if she selling herself short and if she is letting herself and everyone else down. She was accepted in honors programs, excels at math and science, and started off pre-med, but realized right away that her heart just wasn’t into pre-med, and even though she is naturally good at it, she just isn’t all that interested in math or science. So she switched majors to business/accounting, at least until she discovers what she really wants to do, and now is second-guessing that. I’m trying to encourage her and articulate to her the way you articulate to your (2) second category — just enjoy the journey, it’s a trip, but do the best you can on the path you’ve chosen for as long as you stay on that path. I’ve tried to tell her that she is actually fortunate that she discovered in her first semester that she isn’t into pre-med. How much would it have sucked if she didn’t figure out that she hated it until after 3-4 years were invested? If she ends up hating business/accounting, then do something else when you burn out — your life is not etched in stone based on the decisions you make between ages 18-22. And take a train into goddamn NYC with your friends, for fuck sake, don’t just sit around in the dorm and drive back home on the NJ turnpike every weekend!

  13. PaulBC says

    My career path was more linear than any of my siblings’. The only major shift, or failure if I want to think of it like that, is that I am employed as a software developer and not a computer scientist doing research. I have work I enjoy that is well-compensated, but if you had asked me where I “want to be in 5 years” at any time in recent memory, it would be “Off the damn treadmill so I can start living.” It’s not that I wouldn’t still be writing software, but it wouldn’t be what I write now. Still, pay me enough and I don’t have to think too hard about the options. If it weren’t for quarterly reminders of my role as a cog in a corporate machine, I might be able to handle it well past ordinary retirement age.

    I have a very simple algorithm for career choice. Take three sets: what you enjoy doing, what you are better at than most people, what somebody will compensate you for doing. Find your career in the intersection (note: this gives you some latitude to trade off enjoyment and compensation). It’s a problem if the intersection is empty. Settling for 2 out of 3 usually leads to Thoreau’s “quiet desperation.” Avoid that if possible. I like to think that for most people it is possible.

  14. PaulBC says

    Marcus Ranum@12

    I think often of how much things mattered in high school that were so important and now neither I nor the people involved have anything but hazy memories. All these things are lost in time, like tears in the rain.

    I take it you’re not one to suffer episodes of intense embarrassment over long past events that all other parties present have forgotten about? (Or were unaware because the whole misunderstanding happened in your head and you said nothing about it.)

    I have a pretty good memory, but I really don’t envy those who claim to have perfect eidetic memories. Many things are best forgotten.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    Advice for the youngs: Don’t be like Madison Cawthorn.
    Rep. Madison Cawthorn Was Caught Driving Like a Maniac with an Invalid License

    And then, a fun little home video surfaced showing Cawthorn, 26, being pulled over for a traffic violation in Cleveland County last month, reportedly for driving left of the center line. Through distorted audio, you can hear the state trooper tell the freshman Congressman his tags are expired and ask for Cawthorn’s license—which the cop then confiscated, because it had been suspended following a recent conviction for a 2019 speeding violation. So Cawthorn had to switch seats with his passenger, who had a valid license, and let her drive.

  16. says

    I take it you’re not one to suffer episodes of intense embarrassment over long past events that all other parties present have forgotten about?

    Why would one do that?

    There are lessons to be learned from those embarrassing incidents and somewhere along the line I learned how to extract the lessons, and drop the incident. It’s something to do somehow with compartmentalizing past-Marcus from present-Marcus. For example, past-Marcus once stuck a fork in an outlet because he was told not to; I remember the lesson (“must learn more about electricity”) but present-Marcus doesn’t feel stupid because past-Marcus did something stupid.

    Shit, am I a sociopath?

  17. PaulBC says

    Why would one do that?

    ‘Cause “one” doesn’t do it, one’s brain does it to one at least if one is susceptible.

  18. blf says

    I also had community-college experience before going to University, but somewhat different than the previous comments. Another maths person here (one of my degrees is in Mathematics, in fact), and I and a few friends zoomed through our States-side high school programme. At the time, that particular high school was part of what was known as the “model schools programme” (or something like that (with USAian-spelling)), and featured advanced classes in a University-style setting. The high school had a calculus course, which is part of what we zoomed through — leaving nothing left to take (Mathematics-wise) in our final (senior) year. So the maths people arranged for us to take the second-year calculus course at the local community-college, with one of the teachers even allowing us to drive her personal car to get there. (And yes, the drivers were suitably licensed.) It was a great experience. (At the end of course, we treated the kind teacher who lent us her car to a nice dinner.)

    Back more on-topic… I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but was confident I chose the right University. Two features of that University at the time (and very probably still now) were that freshmen were graded on a Pass / Fail system (to try and reduce grade anxiety), and did not have any declared major. It wasn’t until the second (sophomore) year one was graded on an A–F scale, and was expected(?) to have a declared major. Both features — and some others — certainly helped; e.g., in my case, whilst continuing with Mathematics I also took up what most places would call Computer Science (my other degree), and eased the shock of being not being the “best” student in the class and really having to work at the homework.

    I wound doing quite a variety of programming / analysis / design work in multiple countries and various industries, none of which I would have predicted when starting University. One side-effect of all this, however, is I’m very vague about just what a “normal” high school, and large University (even poopyhead’s UMM would be “large” (says without checking)), are like as a young student.

  19. dorght says

    I started out in pre-med at a private college. Calc 1 had the worst teacher I ever experienced – who belligerently READS math equations at students in an intro class. Latin and Greek for scientific terminology and my Advanced Intro to Bio (tiny class) were great courses. Loved H.S. Chem, but absolutely hated the Chem 101/102 cattle car experience. I quit there after 1 year and went to junior college. My jr. college assembly programming class, Calc 2, and Physics 2 were some of the best teachers I ever had and reignited my passion for college. Overall my Junior College classes had some of the best instructors, they had the skills at actually teaching in a way that instilled learning.
    Went on to an intense engineering college after that. OMG what a change in atmosphere from the private college pre-med program. Went from f’ you, every one for themselves to we really need to help each other to survive. Still hated large lecture classes and skipped many to most, just read the book and worked the syllabus problems. A habit that bit me in the ass hard jr. year, e.g. one prof flunked me for attendance (it was in the sillybus.) Next term I took the same class, attended faithfully and sat at the front of the class. Where I ignored the prof and read and took notes from the book, rewrote my papers and got an A for the same work and test scores. Strangely, despite the tiny department and building of what I majored in, him and me ignored each other diligently after that.
    From my experience I would say to take the first one or two years worth of classes at a junior college, cheaper, usually much smaller class size, and better teachers. More importantly it allows time to clarify your passions.

  20. brucegee1962 says

    Speaking as a teacher at a community college: we would love to have all of you!
    Many of our students are what we call “reverse transfers.” They go to a 4-year college fresh out of high school, they aren’t ready, they flunk out, they come home, then come to us. We give them the individual attention they need, and most of the time, once they’ve got their associates’ degree, they are ready and eager to go back to a 4-year and whip its tail.

  21. StonedRanger says

    Making mistakes is how we learn. Thanks marcus for your electric plug story. I use that same story whenever younguns ask me for advise. If youre not making mistakes, youre not trying. I also dont let my past horror stories rule my life. I take whatever I can that is useful and shitcan the rest. Im 67 and the only guideline Ive had for myself since I got out of the army in 77 is “If it isnt making me happy, Im simply not going to do it anymore.” I applied that to employment especially. Thats probably why my job history is so diverse. Ive probably made as many good decisions as bad ones but in the end, things are working out Okay. Married 40 years to the same women, got some kids and grandkids and in another six or seven years this house will be paid off. All I have to do now is live long enough to burn the mortgage.

  22. PaulBC says

    StonedRanger@23 I “paid off” my house because I could and because I can’t deduct mortgage interest now anyway. I am not sure what paid off means with property tax, though. I’m not complaining, but there is no such thing as being done paying.

  23. says

    For example, past-Marcus once stuck a fork in an outlet because he was told not to; I remember the lesson (“must learn more about electricity”) but present-Marcus doesn’t feel stupid because past-Marcus did something stupid.
    Shit, am I a sociopath?

    Oh, no no no. Definitely not.
    OK, probably not.
    I suspect many of us have stories involving adventures in electricity. Mine happened at school in eighth grade.
    Sociopath? Nah. Just thick skin, or something. A trait that was very useful when I went to college and majored in music. A performer can’t be worried about screwing up in front of everybody. Sooner or later you will hit the absolute wrongest note of your career, and the sheer dissonance will shake the stage.
    Or your fly is open. Or you walked into a wall backstage on your last break. Or you stepped on the base of the mic stand and the microphone hit you in the nose.
    Back on topic, though…
    Can 18-year-olds really afford to find themselves in college, though, given the cost of higher education? Way, way cheaper 35 years ago.

  24. JimB says

    As a warning to any kid that knows what he wants…

    I don’t know how young I was when I figured out I wanted to fly. Didn’t care how or where, as long as I was up in the air in something. And after graduating high school I figured the easiest way to get into it was to go join the Navy and find a job I liked in aviation. Took all the tests and the recruiter laid a big book of Navy jobs down in front of me. And said “Your scores are high enough that you can do anything you want. Except you’re green/white color blind so no aviation”.


    Look thru the book. Aannnhh. Whatever. This Data Processing Technician looks interesting. I’ll do that. Computers. Turns out I was pretty good at it. And now some 40 years later I still like what I do. Managing networks, computers and users is actually quite fun and interesing I have found.

    Except now it’s all changing and everything is getting outsourced to a phone bank somewhere. Glad I’m close to retirement.

  25. dorght says

    I forgot to include one of the most impressive junior college teachers I had the pleasure to listen to. Private college early western history class was an endless drone of places, dates, and SOBs. In contrast western history II class at junior college was a delight. Engaging, entertaining, and memorable. The teacher turned history into an amazing story time for young adults. I even remember cutting a lunch time rendezvous with my girlfriend short to not miss that class (in retrospect probably the wrong choice.)

  26. asclepias says

    My parents had to talk me down when I started high school. At orientation, the guidance counselor presented things as “This is the first day of the rest of your life, so you’d better know now what you want to do with it and start working toward that goal.”

  27. says

    Community colleges can serve a useful purpose as long as you’re not so stuck up as to think you’re too good for them. “Oh, no! Junior college! How humiliating!” I went to the small community college in my hometown of Porterville, where an excellent math professor gave me a solid grounding in calculus. After two years at PC, I transferred to Caltech, where two years later I earned my bachelor’s in math. That’s right: Porterville College successfully substituted for two years of the California Institute of Technology (at somewhat lower cost, too).

  28. blf says

    At orientation, the guidance counselor presented things as This is the first day of the rest of your life, so you’d better know now what you want to do with it and start working toward that goal.

    Ha! Yes, I’d forgotten that… in my case, the so-called guidance counselor didn’t kick in until the senior(? junior?) year, i.e., the last two-ish years. A good friend of mine and myself both developed an instant dislike for their advice. My friend, a ham radio operator, was interested in pursuing a career in radio / electronics, the consular suggested looking into radio-DJ’ing and presented a fact-free leaflet; my friend was incensed: Pushing buttons and spinning vinyl discs was not at all what he meant, and that useless leaflet made claims like you didn’t need any sort of a license to be a DJ (which, at the time, wasn’t entirely true, from memory, if there wasn’t a licensed-engineer present (frequently not, due to costs), you did need an appropriate-class operating license).

    In my case, my interest was in hard science (astronomy? mathematics? maybe physics? …?), and also computers (very vague at the time); the consular — who I now suspect was completely clewless, or at least totally baffled — suggested I could be an electrician, or maybe, a telephone linesman (I didn’t get any leaflets as I now recall). Now I was incensed. I have great respect for the skills of both electricians and telephone linesman (perhaps my favourite uncle was, in fact, a telephone linesman), but the consular might have well as suggested astrology or cannibalism.

    From memory, our parents let us rant a bit, but didn’t have to otherwise intervene.