Most of us have met one, and I know I have certainly been one myself. An insecure teenager, too interested in too many things, and not sure what I want to do or be when I grow up. The pressure of deciding the right thing is crippling. What if we do it wrong? How do we know what is the right choice when we don’t have that much experience out in the real world? But the opportunity cost of choosing wrong just to chose something can be even greater.
I was one of those teenagers who had no idea of what I wanted to be. Everything was an option, and so nothing stood out.
I wanted to be a gardener, an artist, a baker, a chef, a pet technician, a potter, a glass blower or a weaver. I had no clear concept of which of them I preferred, so I ended up deciding by not deciding.
Instead of a vocational high school, I went to a study prep one. I had always done well in STEM related classes, so naturally the advisers all suggested I pursue that.
“But I want to do all these other things!” I would try to argue.
“I don’t know.”
“Then pursue STEM – it’s safer, and you can always do those other things on the side.“
So I studied STEM. And I was unhappy. But because I didn’t know what I really wanted to do, I kept going. Racking up debt and limiting my options by over-qualifying myself for many different roles. I kept sighing wistfully over job listings for bakers, seamstresses or gardeners. But none of them really fit. So I kept staying put. Studying semester after semester and limiting my future options by putting on ever more debt (modest though it is), but also – importantly to the Norwegian system – I limited my chances of future student loans.
You only get loans for 8 years in Norway. After that you have to fully fund yourself. And if you can’t, you have a problem. So every year I studied something that wasn’t my real passion, I made it more difficult for future me to get what we want when I finally figured it out.
The specifics of this opportunity cost might differ from country to country, but the conclusion is the same. And even if you aren’t racking up debt for your education, you’re still paying for it with years of your life. The biggest cost of them all.
I have always been terribly and frustratingly slow to realize the truths in my own life. In secondary school, I got a christian confirmation ceremony as a teenager, only to realize a year later that I was an atheist. In university, I would thoroughly understood a curriculum – usually only after I’d taken the next advanced course on the subject.
And I saw a stand for Norway’s one and only, amazing organic farming school, several years before I realized I wanted to go. That I really wanted to go. That farming and playing with digital sidehustles was all I ever wanted from life. That planting trees to suck carbon from the atmosphere was preferable to me to taking samples and analyzing them for toxins.
I wanted to grow things. Organically, to restore the planet. And with the internet providing us ample earning potential from anywhere there is a connection – we could actually make it a reality in a way that was much more difficult previously.
And I only truly realized and internalized it this year.
After I started my PhD, after we bought a house with a mortgage that needs to be managed, and after I’d spent almost 10 years heading in the wrong direction.
But the true opportunity cost is in the time. Not just the time I “wasted” because I am notoriously bad at realizing what I really want. But in the time I will have to continue working in the field I’ve realized is no longer my passion. Because we need to save up money, we need to grow our sidehustles, and we need to make sure we will be stable for several years if I am to return to school.
The application date for my dream is 1st of March. And I have no choice but to watch it as it passes by because we don’t have enough in savings just yet to pull it off.
I have to wait one year, maybe two years before I can pursue my dream in earnest, now that I have finally realized what it is.
And it is, in part, because I listened to the well-meaning adults around me, and got an education I wasn’t really passionate about, in order to get a job I could “fall back on”.
If I had worked odds and ends until I realized what I wanted to do, I could have been debt free and able to jump on the chance right now.
If I had waited, like Mr. Frugasaurus, with studying until I knew what I wanted to do, I would have gotten far more value from my education.
Don’t get me wrong. There are parts about my university life that I would not give up for the world. But they are all related to the people I met and the person I grew into. It has nothing to do with the courses I studied or the qualifications I acquired.
Then again, perhaps I would never have realized what I really wanted to do if I hadn’t taken the detour through depression, anxiety and self-doubt? Without my awesome previous boss who hired a blue-eyed student to a summer job of landscape gardening. Which helped her realize that being outside and changing with the seasons was rewarding and fun and inspiring?
But I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to finally have found your passion, only to park yourself on a fence. Waiting and saving money until you can finally pursue it. Which is, in part, why I have added the new tracker on the right hand sidebar of the blog, and all my sidehustle earnings will go to the progress of saving for a year of expenses at Norway’s organic farming school. Every Etsy sale, every blog ad penny. It’s all going towards that bar.
And if by the end of the next two years I do not have enough, I will have saved enough to supplement it.
I am frustrated, but I am also really, really excited. I found the thing I have been searching for my entire life – I found my passion.
So don’t be like me. Don’t get yourself stuck in a situation it might take you months and years to untangle yourself from. For many it is debt. For me it was my own education. Don’t do it just because you don’t know what you want to do. Take a step back and breathe. Pursuing a “safe” fall back option won’t work if that fall back option is so time consuming that you do not have time to realize or pursue your passions.
Wait and be patient. Explore, try new things. But be wary of the opportunity cost of getting yourself stuck in a career you do not actually want to stay in for the rest of your life. You might spend several years untangling yourself from that career once you find the thing that truly lights you up.