I'll be 81 next month and have had many years to reflect upon the decisions I've made in my life. The long and short of it is, don't ever let your parents or anyone else, for that matter, steer you from what you really want to do in life.
I was fortunate in that my parents never questioned my decision to major in philosophy and literature. Although not a path to financial success, these subjects provided me with a foundation for which I will always be eternally thankful.
I had two friends at Columbia who eventually followed their own hearts and not their parents' wishes, although it didn't start out that way.
When I was at Yale, following graduation from Columbia, I kept in touch with both of them. One was at Yale, and the other at Harvard. Both were studying law, not because they wanted to but because it was expected of them.
My friend at Harvard was an exceptional linguist who never went on to practice law, but rather joined the corporate world from which he retired. Although not an interpreter by profession, at one point he served as an interpreter in French for President Kennedy at State dinners. On one occasion, he met up with my wife and me in India. We met some French tourists who refused to believe he wasn't a French native, as he spoke the language flawlessly.
He never went on to be a linguist, but I know that language was his true love, and I feel confident, from what I knew of him, that he'd have been far happier if he had followed his heart in that direction.
The other friend was in law school at Yale. He really wanted to be an economist, but acquiesced to parental pressure to study law. After his first year, he decided to follow his dreams and left Yale. He returned to Columbia to study economics, and ended up a highly regarded and respected economist.
My point is—never let your parents' ambitions interfere with your own. I'm sure that all of my friends' parents had their sons' best interests at heart. But you are the one who will be going to work every day for the next 40 years or so. When it is all over, and you look back on your life, will you be able to say (if only to yourself), "Mine was a life well and satisfyingly spent," without thinking of what might have been?
Leonard Wolfe, CC '56
P.S. I went on to spend the major part of my career as an art director at Time-Life (Fortune, Discover and Time magazines) and have so far lived happily ever after—although I'm still not quite sure what I want to be when I grow up.
The author received his B.A. in philosophy and literature as a member of the Columbia College class of 1956. He received his MFA in graphic design from the Yale School of Architecture in 1958.
To respond to this letter, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.