It Isn’t About the Paintbrush

I did an art course last summer.

I was excited. It was the first time I’d done an art course at this location and was ready to be inspired.

The art list issued prior to the course had some recommendations about the colour of watercolours, paper to bring, etc. I decided my cheap-o set would be good enough to learn the technique.

In the course, most of the participants were very curious (read: obsessed) with the instructor’s brush. It was a nice brush, yes, but the participants revered it like it would make them produce art as good as the instructors.

A friend of mine has a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She produces glorious art that I admire. She gets her brushes at the dollar store.

The tools don’t make the artist; practice is key.

This week I read an article about the most-regretted majors. This article stated that alumni regretted choosing certain majors because, after graduation, they were less likely to get a good job.

I have three degrees. I started my post-secondary education with the aspiration to get a good job. That failed. I ended up getting an education instead, and now have a bailiwick full of transferrable skills and the ability to think critically.

I work in post-secondary education. I see how industry, governments, and students are pressuring higher education to ensure students are ’employable’ upon graduation.

Much like the paintbrush example above, I see a misalignment between outcomes and methods. A better or more expensive paintbrush isn’t going to make you a better painter. A degree isn’t going to get you a good job.

I can you already objecting to this oversimplified statement. So let’s dig into this.

Let’s say I’m a prospective student. I love creative writing and I want to get an English degree. The expectation is that I’ll get a job as a teacher or maybe I’ll even make money writing novels.

My question is: what is the goal of the student? To learn about writing or to get a job?

Sometimes the two outcomes can be combined, but often they can’t. Just because you get a degree doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job.

There needs to be some planning, some strategy performed prior to choosing a degree if the expected outcome is a job and a good job.

In addition, this article states that, in hindsight, students wished they’d done things differently because “job seekers’ feelings about their majors are tied directly to their employment and earning prospects.”

There are two things about this insight that niggle at me:

  1. people equate money with happiness
  2. people think that doing a degree is only about eventual employment and income

I’m not really going to go into the pitfalls and tragedy that people think money is happiness here except to say that a certain level of income does provide security and comfort. Beyond that, however, is icing and won’t buy true happiness.

In point #2, I’d like to suggest that while a lot of people may wish they’d done a computer science degree so they, too, could make a 6- or 7-figure income right out of school, how many of these same people would have the personality and temperament to actually do the computer science degree and be stuck in front of a computer all day?

Out of high school, I wanted a secure job. I went into Engineering. I hated it. It hated me. I transferred to Social Science. I was much happier, learned some amazing skills and knowledge. Even though it took me a while, I did find a good job. It’s not 6-figures, but it allows me to be me. My personality and temperament would not allow me to continue with Engineering. Anthropology was a much better fit for who I am.

And it’s not that my degree got me the job, I used my education to get a job that I enjoyed and that fit me. There’s a distinction in agency here that is important to realize: *I* did the work to find the job, rather than relying on my degrees.

I started off like the participants in my art class, thinking that getting that paintbrush would assure me good future. Instead, I discovered that using my dollar-store brushes were good enough to get what was truly of value: experience and transferrable skills in a manner that fit who I am.


Do you want a fun 5-minute diversion today?

I’m redesigning the cover of my novel Memoirs of a Reluctant Archaeologist. The book has been out for 12 years (!) and deserves an update. As well, there are now more Elise Marquette stories, so the cover needs to indicate that.

Vote for your favourite cover here. (Note: these are mock-ups and are still in progress.)

Further Reading

University Business – Students’ top 10 most-regretted majors have everything to do with one issue – How College Graduates’ Expectations and Attitudes Affect the Recruitment Process

Collegiate Parent – Life After Graduation: Expectations vs. Reality

David McElroy – Tools don’t make you great artist, but tools can change how you feel



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