Accidental Polymath Problems: 10 Subjects You Study Before You Find the One

After my comment last week that I’d sort of friend-zoned physics, I got to thinking about how many different subjects/career choices I stumbled through during my 20s. It’s incredibly interesting to me that even though society has started allowing (and frequently even encouraging) people to wait longer and longer before finding “the one” for marriage, we still put a lot of pressure on people to know exactly what they’re interested in by the age of 18…or 22 if you’re a little behind. Clearly college debt is a huge driver of this, but I do meet a bizarre number of high school students who really think most people figure out “their passion” before they’re even old enough to drink. While clearly there are plenty of people who find what topics they want to study early, I’d like to propose that the whole thing is a little more like dating then we normally think of it.

When I mention “subjects” here and “study”, I am covering a lot of ground. Studying could mean formally studying in school, or getting books out of the library, watching documentaries or talking to a lot of people in the field. While I mention careers, I’m not directly equating intellectual pursuits to careers or work because some people really don’t get to equate those two. It’s an unfortunate reality that many of us have to prioritize paying the bills over feeding our minds, and if you ever find yourself doing both at once you are incredibly lucky. With those caveats, and the knowledge that this is based on nothing but my own experience and that of my friends, here’s the 10 types of subjects you study before you find “the one”:

  1. The Celebrity Crush  Grey’s Anatomy. ER. Bones. CSI. Law and Order. Let’s face it, some professions get all the girls. No seriously, who among us with a television set hasn’t at some point hasn’t developed a crush on an entire profession/field of study? When I was 4 years old I watched a PBS special and spent months telling everyone I wanted to be a paleontologist and begging my parents for dinosaur books. Two decades or so later I binge watched the first 5 seasons of Bones I spent a solid 3 weeks desperately wanting to be a forensic anthropologist and reading every book my library had on the topic. While sometimes these can spark real career choices, most of the time the fantasy is better than the reality. I mean, I still adore dinosaurs but I would NEVER have the patience to catalogue a dig site. Some things just look better from afar.
  2. The Challenge Subject Similar to the celebrity crush, but you actually encountered it in your real life. This is the subject or path you pursue because you’re not sure you can actually get it. It’s not that you’re not legitimately interested, but if you’re honest with yourself it’s really your competitive streak that’s pushing you through. The truth will hit you when you finally mastered the subject, only to promptly realize that now you really never want to talk about it again. Want an example? Ask me about my biomedical engineering degree.
  3. The One that Requires Way Too Much Commitment Okay, so you found a subject you really like, and you think “hey, maybe I’d like to consider this as a profession”…and then you realize exactly how much work that would take. You like the subject, but the idea of working hundreds of hours or going to school for a decade to study it further strikes you as waaaaay too much commitment.  It’s ready to settle down, and it looks nice, but you just can’t be tied down like that. You have too many other interests, and there’s only so many hours in the day.
  4. The Summer Fling This is the subject you absolutely love, but only because of the setting you encountered it in. Maybe you got to learn about archeology while studying abroad in Egypt or you had an amazing professor who made an otherwise boring subject unbelievably interesting. When you try to pick this subject back up again, you realize that in a more mundane environment it actually is kind of boring. Ah well, at least you have the memories.
  5. The Artist This is the subject you love with all your heart, but you realize it will always be a bit of a free spirit. Maybe it’s literally an artistic field mashed up with another topic, or maybe it’s a subject you’re just kind of making up as you go along (like, say teaching people how to read science on the internet) but it doesn’t fit neatly in any sort of traditional box. It’s more exciting to you than almost any other topic, but no one else understands what you see in it and it’s DEFINITELY not a program of study anywhere.
  6. The Friend With Benefits This is the subject that comes really naturally to you without ever really having to put much effort in. It doesn’t excite you much, but people will pay you to do it and the effort is minimal. For me, this is quality and regulatory. You want someone to memorize obscure regulations, recite them at you when you step out of line, check your work and tell you your faults? I’m your girl. I can do that in my sleep. Ask anyone who’s ever lived with me. Anyway, this one doesn’t require a lot of investment either because it comes so naturally or you’re already qualified for it, but you know you could walk away at any time and never think about it again.
  7. The Safe One Related to the friend with benefits, but you committed to this one. It doesn’t excite you, but you think you can always find work in this field and it’s not terribly stressful. You sometimes think about leaving, but everything else seems less certain. Tends to work out pretty well unless the field totally collapses on you.
  8. The Friend Zoned This is the thing you always enjoying hearing about, but simply never want to commit to doing much reading about…..despite a bit of a feeling you should give it a chance. Maybe it’s a field where you could make a lot of money, or something your parents think you should try, but you just can’t bring yourself to try it out.
  9. The “We’re Better As Friends” A little like the friend zone, but this one is a mutual decision. It’s the subject you like studying and love to be around, but as soon as anything formal or structured was required you did terribly and bailed. Still, having it in your life makes your life richer, as long as it’s on low pressure terms. Interestingly, I try to convince many people that statistics should fall in this category for them. You don’t have to like studying math formally in order to benefit from having a little more statistics in your life.
  10. The “why did we never work out” This is the subject you always think is pretty great, but really spend very little time studying. You like it, but every time you find a free moment, you forget it exists, or it’s only offered as a class the one semester you’re already overloaded, etc etc. For me this is epidemiology. I’ve taken classes in it, it’s a natural fit, but I never quite seem to follow up. I really should give it a call sometime soon.

Of course the nice thing about intellectual pursuits is that you actually can juggle multiple different subjects at once with a lot less potential for drama than if you tried that while dating. For example, my current job is a mash up of my true love (statistics, analytics and process improvement) my friend with benefits (quality and regulatory) and the safe one (computer systems). My blogging is The Artist, and it gives me a place to research all my thoughts that don’t fit in any other box. I think acknowledging how many different types of intellectual pursuits there are (and how much you can learn from all of them!) could be useful for kids still trying to figure things out. Just like dating can help you hone in on what you want in a spouse, studying a lot of subjects can help you find that sweet spot of “things you want to talk about” and “things people want to pay you to talk about”.

Plus, isn’t the world a little more fun when you consider every new book a low key blind date?

One thought on “Accidental Polymath Problems: 10 Subjects You Study Before You Find the One

  1. Some places you are just a tourist–you go look because it’s beautiful. Others are familiar vacation spots–you have some emotional investment too, and you put in the work of camping. Others are places you live for a while and actually help out with something–they require a lot more investment of time and understanding what to do.

    I’m a tourist in a lot of different fields–I try to learn enough to get the beauty of them. (I get pushback from some more conventionally artistic members of the family when I assert that mathematics is an art form too.) Others I know well enough to be able to ask useful questions–generally ones that were posed and solved a century ago–but that’s a camper for you, discovering a “new” trail. In a couple of fields I spent the time to actually find new things–but it _does_ take time. (Oh look, a squirrel!)

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