I am 20 years old, go to a state university, and am severely confused on what I want to do in life.
When I was little, I wanted to be an "artist." With the beret, paintbrushes and canvas. Then, I moved on. Sure, I loved art, and enjoyed it, and was good at it, but I realized I wasn't exceptionally creative in that sense. So I wanted to be a journalist. That idea left as soon as it entered my mind in high school. Then, toward the lag end of high school, I got interested in becoming a doctor. It wasn't out of some desire I had to cure the world or make lots of money. It was because of my parents.
My parents and my family are from the Indian subcontinent and are Muslim. In their minds, the best thing to be is a professional. Especially a doctor. My father always tells me that I should be a doctor to help people and to be independent. My dad works away from home and flies back to my family every three to four weeks. It's a hard life for him, because he misses out on our lives. It's important to him that I become independent and have the ability to work wherever I want to. So, in high school, I took some medical classes. I enjoyed them; they weren't my favorite classes, but they were, I suppose, "all right."
When I started applying for university, for my possible majors, I would alternate between political science and English. My mother would ask me to write "pre-medicine" next to the others. Therefore, when I got accepted, I was put into the pre-professional advising. I never truly desired to become a doctor. The only reason I wanted to become one was to help people. To fix them. So I kept going. I took biology, chemistry, bioethics.
Then, my sophomore year, last year, I fell apart. I took physics and organic chemistry. I was doing terribly in both. I made a 48 on my first exam in physics and a 63 in organic. I had to decide whether or not to drop physics. I eventually did, and I was so disappointed in myself. You see, I did well in high school. I took many Advanced Placement classes, made A's, and was an excellent student. And I got burnt out. I just couldn't force myself to work. I tried, but it wasn't enough. I didn't care enough. So I eventually made a C in organic.
It was during this semester that I would get these sort of panic attacks. I would just cry and cry when thinking about how badly I was doing in life, in organic, in everything. This is what really scared me the most. I always prided myself on not stressing out, not freaking out, and doing well in what I was studying for. But here was a class that just broke me down into tears. I couldn't study when I was like that.
Then, the spring semester began. I took the second part of organic. Struggled through it and was averaging a C in the class. Then I fell apart again. I made a 48 on my last test, which dropped me to a D. I had to make an amazing grade on the final. I didn't start studying for the final until the night before because I had basically given up. I failed the class with an F. In all my other classes that semester, I made A's and B's.
So now I don't know what to do. I'm signed up for organic again this semester, with the same professor I failed with. I'm already freaking out about it. I don't want to have those panic attacks again, but I can feel my heart rate getting faster just thinking about it and typing it out. I don't think I want to be a doctor anymore. But I don't know what else I can do. I'm majoring in English, and I enjoy writing, reading, and analyzing, but what could I do? I know I'm good at it. I'm thinking about public policy, law school, etc. Sometimes I blame my parents for, in a way, forcing me to do pre-med. It prevented me from pursuing architecture, for example. Or anything else. I know I shouldn't blame them, but it seems so convenient.
I want to do so much with my life. I don't want to regret anything. I want to study abroad and travel and do the Peace Corps and help people. But I need to make a decision.
What should I do, Cary? I trust your advice. I read your column and your advice is always sound. If you could help me, I would be so grateful.
Typical Confused College Student
Dear Confused College Student,
Your parents are sitting on the floor in the living room, playing with a doctor doll. The doctor doll wears a nice white lab coat. The doctor doll is good-looking and rich. The doctor doll has a whole doctor household complete with doctor grandchildren and doctor spouse, and the doctor is in a Lexus driving down the street waving to admirers. Your parents have some play money and they have piled it up next to the doctor. The pile of money is nearly as tall as the doctor.
Your parents would be very upset if someone were to take the rich doctor doll away. So you must use the tactic of redirection. You must show your parents something that is just as interesting to them.
You must wave a shiny lawyer in their faces. You must say, "Look, parents! Shiny, famous lawyer! Rich, famous, shiny lawyer! CNN consultant fees!"
In this way, you can induce them to turn their attention from the rich doctor doll to the rich lawyer doll, without feeling that they have lost a precious dream. If all goes well, they will forget about the doctor and will soon be back on the living room floor, assembling a rich lawyer family, complete with lawyer spouse, successful lawyer children and a big expensive lawyer house filled with money to the ceiling.
You would think that you could just talk to parents. But they aren't like that. You can't talk to them. You have to treat them like children.
You, on the other hand, are fairly adult. You know what you need to do. You just have to clear some space for yourself to do it.
While you're at it, in case you are feeling alone, take a look at this article on Sound Vision. It addresses your situation almost precisely: "The child wants to be an artist; his parents want him to go to med-school and become a doctor. The child wants to be a political scientist; his parents want him to be an engineer. This clash seems to be especially prevalent in immigrant Muslim families."
And it makes one particularly encouraging observation that might be persuasive to your parents: "Muslim leaders have long complained about the lack of Muslims pursuing careers in the media."
Law is a difficult career, and it may not be exactly what you wish to pursue for your entire life. But I think you have a good shot at it and should give it a try. It can be a springboard to many other occupations, journalism and writing principally among them.
Your parents are right about one thing. They know, as countless other immigrants have known, that though American society is an open place, it is not a kind, safe place. It is a place where you have to make your own way. You have to establish status for yourself. If not, you will be trampled. That's the way it is here. So they are right to push you to acquire a profession that will afford you some protection from the vicissitudes of capitalism and individualism.
Sure, you will have to change some of your educational arrangements. But you would have to do that anyway. You flunked organic!
Don't worry. It's probably the best course you've ever flunked.
So drink some coffee and cancel the pre-med studies.
Throw yourself into what you love best. Make yourself happy. Excel. Immerse yourself in it. Go toward what you love. Work. Graduate. Stay healthy.
Keep telling your parents you're going to law school.
Then join the Peace Corps.
After the Peace Corps, you'll know what to do.
What? You want more?