The Proper Yardstick

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Today, I started — then stopped reading — the article, “The Top 10 Worst College Majors, Definitively Ranked.”

I saw it this morning on Facebook and, despite the red flags it, and other titles like it (“top ten” this or that), usually raised, my curiosity told me to click the link and skim the list.

It didn’t take an educated guess, however,  to know where the article was going.

Of course, the fine arts was among those listed with anthropology and archeology as well as film/video & photographic arts.

The only point of those articles is to reaffirm this hierarchy of personal pursuits and professions, as if success, whatever that is, could only be measured by the same yard stick.

And why are we measuring against one another anyway? The Canadian author Ann Voskamp said it best: “Pick up a yardstick to measure your life against anyone else’s, and you’ve just picked up a stick and beaten up your own soul.”

These soul-beating articles, like “The Top 10 Worst College Majors…,” aren’t only pointless, but do more harm than good.


They discourage people from pursuing what they’re passionate about and, instead, encourage them  to major in what they think will get them good jobs that, while paying generously and offering great benefits, will ultimately make them miserable.

My father didn’t understand that then (study something that’s going to make you some good money, he usually said), so I majored in computer science — convincing myself that it made sense because I loved video games.

Nevermind that I didn’t have any coding experience.

After graduation, I could make $90,000 starting pay. That’s what I kept telling myself until I flunked my major and ended up on academic probation.

It took an advisor, running off a list of other possible majors, to help me rethink things.  When I asked her how much money I’d make after graduation, she frowned.

“What do you enjoy doing?”  she asked me. “What gives you the most fulfillment?”

That’s when I remembered the poems my classmates and I studied from Elementary through High School. That’s when I remembered the short stories I wrote to get the characters out of my head. That’s when I remembered how fulfilling it was to — having sweated out each line and stanza of my own poems — to see a draft that got closer to what I wanted to express.

That’s when I decided to study journalism.


Yes, the publisher paid pennies for work that always followed me home. Yes, that same publisher laid me off and I went unemployed for a while.

But doing what I thought was fulfilling allowed me to explore other careers in writing. I worked a handful of gigs — from a contract consultant on a book project, to teaching middle and high school students creative writing, to touring D.C. Public Schools as a visiting writer for a prestigious literary organization.

During that time, I went to grad school and published DRIFT, which continues to open opportunities for me.

After graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing, my pay jumped by $15,000 when I landed a full-time position as a communications specialists for a national nonprofit.

If there’s anything I learned during those days of uncertainty, it was this: diversify your income streams; never just have one source of income.

Right now, I have four — three in addition to my full-time job.  And guess what? I wouldn’t trade my experience for another.

To paraphrase Vince Lombardi: fulfillment of all we hold dear is that moment when we work our hearts out in a good cause and lie exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.

And that, not the “Top Ten” articles, should be the yardstick with which we measure  both our personal and professional successes.

6 thoughts on “The Proper Yardstick

  1. So well said, Alan — and a truth that so many overlook in pursuit of the “happiness” money brings. In the end, you can leave this world with a sense of accomplishment and others with a sense of who you were, or you can leave with a full bank account eventually depleted and forgotten. As we once discussed, a life spent pursuing what can be is better than a life spent in pursuit of what could have been. Cheers to your choices, my friend 😉

  2. Preach it! This is so true. When I joined the military my test scores screamed “electronics!” even though I screamed back “NO! Anything but math!” I BEGGED for journalism, so of course I spent three years as a generator mechanic. Electrocuted myself 4 times in three years before I convinced them I wasn’t suited to the wiring gig and they made me a journalist. Today I’m finally a freelance writer (I still glow when lightning strikes nearby) and I love my life!

    1. Whoa! Thanks for this inspiring tale. It’s wild how when we go against what we’re supposed to do, thing’s don’t pan out. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re called to do. Thanks for the affirmation!

  3. Amen, Alan! I saw the same article on FB and bristled when I saw what the top ten “worst” were. Guess what I majored in? Film and Media Studies. And I loved it then and thought I was going to be an editor of films. Though I moved away from production and that line of work, I did take up photography and I love that I have a degree that forced me to be analytical and taught me how to craft a thesis.

    I have many creative interests and I do not pursue any particular one for a living but I practice all of them on the side of my day job. (Working on the career path is slow going but I’m not giving up!) Fulfillment of the soul is absolutely the way to go.

    1. Thanks, Zoe! Articles like the “Top Ten Worst College Majors…” don’t take into account the creative economy, which has varying definitions depending on who you talk to. The one I like best is this one: “The recognition of arts and cultural assets as more than contributors to quality of life in a particular place, but as important economic drivers for the region.” (Juice Conference website –

      I’ve seen that creativity in film and publishing on the indie scene. A friend of mine, who’s a poet, started his own press and employed a small staff to help him run it. What about indie filmmakers who hire crews. I’m still learning all about what the creative economy entails.

      Thanks again for stopping through the blog and, as always, for your insights.

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