When discussing major choice with a college freshman, I’ll sometimes use the following illustration.

Imagine you’re a manager at a midsize company. You gaze out your office window onto a beautiful May morning: the peonies are blooming, the robins are flitting about, and you’re hiring. It’s an entry-level position, and two resumés sit on your desk. Both applicants graduated from the same college last week.

Let’s call them Lisa and Steve.

Lisa, the Philosophy Major

The first thing you notice is that Lisa’s degree is in philosophy.

Interesting. You scan the resumé.

  • 3.8 GPA, with a minor in psychology.
  • Her senior thesis explored “the metaphysics of consciousness.”
  • Studied abroad in Amman, Jordan. An unusual choice.
  • Took two semesters of calculus, apparently out of interest. Aced Calc I but got a C in Calc II.
  • Audited a class most semesters (took it for fun, with no letter grade at the end).
  • Started doing wedding photography two summers ago, and after she took a marketing class, business took off. She figured out how to keep financial records with Excel. She now hires a second photographer.
  • Did volunteer work at a local nonprofit and got them on social media, increasing their reach.
  • Interested in cognitive science. No, wait: this kid’s done some actual research. Pretty impressive for an undergrad. Looks like she worked with a cognitive psychology professor to explore the nature of consciousness from a neuroscience perspective. Probably fed into her senior thesis.

“A standout applicant,” you think, scanning the final page. “Definitely worth an interv—”

Whoa. She wrote a novel. She’s looking for a publisher now. The whole thing’s free on her website, so you skim a few pages. She’s not Hemingway, but she’s clearly a skilled writer. Also, she has a website? Not a bad one, either. She must have some basic web design chops. You check out her photography while you’re on her site. It’s great.

“Wow,” you think. “Okay, let’s have a look at the other resumé.”

Steve, the Business Major

Steve played it smart. His degree is in business, so he should have the skills to add value to your department. You read on.

  • Graduated with a 2.7 GPA.
  • Not much work experience. Just a restaurant job in high school. No evidence of entrepreneurship.
  • Joined a fraternity, but it doesn’t look like he took on a leadership position.
  • No record of volunteer work.
  • Steve’s resumé claims “excellent communication skills,” but it also contains more than a couple of typos. It seems hastily written.

A quick Google search reveals a couple of social media profiles, but not much else. Steve seems like a nice guy, but in spite of his business degree, it’s not clear from his resumé that Steve has any particular interest in business.

As far as you can tell, Steve has never even run a lemonade stand.

Whom Would You Hire?

After I’ve laid out this scenario for my students, I ask them, “Now, whom would you hire?” I expect the answer to be obvious. Hire Lisa, right? This kid is a force of nature!

To many college freshmen, the answer is not obvious. They often stare at me, confused by the premise. They’ve been trained to focus on choice of major, even seeing it as a hierarchy, a game of rock-paper-scissors. Business beats philosophy.

I’m not picking on college freshmen, either. We’ve all been conditioned to follow instructions, to do what everyone else is doing, and to look for a safe, practical choice. The thing is, playing it safe isn’t so safe anymore.

Here’s what’s safe now: cultivating an ability to think independently, developing the skill of starting (and completing) interesting projects, and learning to see possibility where others are blinded by fear.

What sets Lisa apart from Steve is her willingness to risk failure, to think critically, and to buck the status quo when it needs bucking. Who studies abroad in Jordan? Someone who makes their own map.

Scarcity creates value. There are a lot of Steves in the world.

Not so many Lisas.