Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it…that people pursue careers that don’t really interest them?

I was raised in your typical household with two parents and a sister. My mother is a nurse and my father is a medical doctor. I am currently a junior in college majoring in biology, but my true passion is music. I’ve been getting average grades, go to class when I feel like it, and like most guys my age, party a lot. Lately, I’ve been feeling depressed and unmotivated and spend most of my time writing songs. Why is it that I have chosen a pre-med major instead of going after a degree in music?

A: Having spent the last 15 years teaching at the university level, I can honestly say, you are not alone. Every semester I encounter students who relay similar stories. Your question can be addressed by exploring the three dimensions of the self-concept: the “actual,” “ought” and “ideal” selves. The actual self is the person we are right now (or at any given moment in time). The ought self is the person we believe we should be out of some sense of obligation or duty, while the ideal self is the person we aspire to be out of our own free will.

It has been argued that we each have all three components to our self-concepts. In order to experience psychological well-being, it is essential that the three components of self be in agreement with one another. For example, if a person ideally wants to graduate with a degree, they ought to be home studying, going to class and taking school seriously. If they are actually doing these things, their self-concept will be in alignment. However, if they are actually at the tavern until 2 am the night before a final exam, a state of psychological imbalance or dissonance will arise, resulting in feelings of guilt, shame and even depression.

Of the three components, the ought self is the one to watch out for. As long as you are doing what you believe you ought to do in order to achieve your ideal goals, your psychology will be balanced. However, if your ought self has been defined by a sense of obligation to someone else (like a parent or spouse, for example), then your actual self will suffer as you are not taking steps to actualize your ideal potential.

In your case, I suspect that you envision your ideal self as a musician in some regard. However, considering your parent’s professions, it may be that you feel obligated to pursue a medical career. Because these two vocations (music and medicine) are not consistent with one another, your actual self is responding with decreased motivation and feelings of depression. Ask yourself who is defining your sense of who you ought to be. Perhaps you are falsely assuming that your parents expect you to have a career in medicine, in which case, you should talk with them to clarify their attitudes. You may be pleasantly surprised that they are happy to support you in whatever path you choose. If, on the other hand, they have directly expressed their expectation that you go into medicine, or worse yet, will only support you if you choose this path, the solution to your problem will be a bit more challenging, but must still be addressed.

It is not always easy to stand up for ourselves, especially when it comes to our parents. However, we each have our own calling and are entitled to pursue that which gives our lives meaning. You may very well become a doctor one day, but the question is…at what cost to your happiness and sense of well-being?