Dad became the first person in his family to go to college. He became a pharmacist and excelled in his career. When I was born, Dad decided that I would be a doctor. He moved our family to Richardson in North Dallas because they had the top-rated high school in Texas. My sisters and I were lucky to have excellent educations through Richardson High. Dad made sure I took advanced science and math courses in high school, which didn’t bother me because I liked those subjects and earned A’s and B’s without studying. I never questioned what my major would be in college. Dad said I would be a doctor. Whatever. My interests were the wrestling team and racing motorcycles.
Entering my freshman year in college, Dad chose premed courses for me. He was paying, so I went with the flow, not really thinking about the rest of my life. The newfound freedom of getting out from under his thumb became my greatest thrill. I knew that as long as I made good grades, he didn’t care about my social life, which had opened up to a whole new world. I took in fraternity activities, parties, and girls and still cruised with A’s and B’s. No big deal.
The hammer came down my second year. Organic chemistry was brutal. No, impossibly hard for me. I could not memorize long chains of molecules and complex reactions. I flunked my midterm test, and premed disappeared for me. I dropped organic and made a gloomy call to Mom that I would not be the first doctor in the family. Better to tell Mom, and she would tell Dad.
Dad took it alright and shifted gears. He decided I should be an accountant since I liked math. I had taken bookkeeping in high school, so I breezed through my first year of accounting classes. Likewise, the second year. By my third year at the University of Texas, I found a cost accounting class so mind-numbing that I started it twice and dropped it both times. After that, I knew I would not be an accountant.
Now I was a real failure and had wasted Dad’s money. Three years into school, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with for the rest of my life - much less what classes to sign up for next semester. I didn’t want to answer Dad’s questions about why my grades crashed, so I didn’t go home that summer.
A friend and I found jobs at a restaurant and a cheap frat house room with no air conditioning. Summer heat in Austin was unbearable even though we slept in front of big window fans. I solved that by working at the restaurant at night, closing down its bar at 1:00, and drinking to sunrise—all summer long. A bottle of scotch every night ensured I slept until early afternoon. Then I’d get up and hang out at some store with air conditioning. At 5:00, I went back to work, not thinking about fall classes at all. By the end of the summer, I was a mess as registration for next semester’s classes approached. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t face my parents. I had reached a low point in my life and hid in a bottle.
One day I read an article in our school newspaper that talked about free aptitude tests to see what kind of classes to take. The next day I took a test asking, ‘did I like to do this more than that.’ Over and over for hours.
When I came back for the results, my counselor asked, “Why are you taking accounting classes?”
“My Dad wants me to.” I hung my head down.
“Do you like accounting?”
“No. It’s so boring, adding up numbers all day. No creativity at all.”
“That’s what your test said. Accounting is not for you.”
Glad to hear that. “Right. What else did it say?”
“Your highest five abilities are five types of engineering.”
“Really? I don’t know anything about engineering.”
“Most people don’t. What’s been your favorite class?”
“Hmm. I liked physics.”
“Physics is the basis for all engineering. My recommendation for you is to take some advanced physics and beginning engineering courses to see if you like them. Also, you are close to a business degree. You should keep taking business classes and finish up your BBA.”
“Thanks. I’ll think about that.”
I dreaded calling Dad to tell him I wanted to change my major again. Starting over in engineering school meant another four years of school. I didn’t know if he’d pay for me to stay in school. I waited until the day before registration to call him. Dad took my news better than I feared. He wanted me to stay in school. Starting over in a noble profession made him happy, and don’t worry about money. Dad said he didn’t care what my degree was as long as I became the best in my business. That message stuck with me, and I later rose to the top of my stormwater engineering world. I raised my daughter with that same message. Pick what you like and be the best. When he asked about my business courses, I told him I hated accounting, but a Real Estate degree looked interesting. My business courses to date applied to the new degree, so they weren’t in vain. What could he say? He was a real estate developer by this time, and he wanted me to follow in his footsteps.
I cleaned up my act, stopped drinking, and applied myself that next semester. Or, as my father used to say, I found myself and got my head screwed on right. To my surprise, I liked engineering courses and decided to major in Civil Engineering. I found out right away that business classes were blow-offs compared to difficult engineering classes. Therefore, I signed up for an easy business course each semester to offset challenging engineering courses.
Thanks to Dad’s patience and money, I ended up with a BS in civil engineering and a BBA with majors in Finance and Real Estate and a minor in Accounting. I tried cost accounting one last time and did not last.
But I still did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I bounced around the private sector with several engineering jobs to gain varied experience and obtain my Professional Engineering license, but they were just jobs to make a living. After my first dozen times of designing cookie-cutter subdivisions in an assembly line office to see how many lots I could squeeze into a plot of land, boredom set in. At thirty-six years old, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I switched to a new job working for Brevard County, Florida, as a stormwater engineer in a program to clean their rivers and bays. I valued the public servant mission to save polluted waterways with innovative technologies in a program that mixed engineering and environmental challenges. At age forty, I finally found my life’s calling that I stuck with for the rest of my career. It ended up that my business courses came in handy. As I moved into management, I spent a lot of time with budgets, acquiring land, determining tax rates, and other financial subjects that I learned about in business school.
The moral of my story is that you have to declare a college major while in high school, and your family might have career goals for you. That might work out for you, but if it doesn’t, it’s okay to change your mind as many times as it takes to find your life’s calling. Bounce around to different majors and jobs until you find what is right for you.