Time and Time Again by
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College major as career gauge. First off, doesn’t the word “gauge” look ridiculous?  How do you get to “gāj” when it’s spelled “gauge”?  And what kind of gauge is a “career” gauge anyway? Analog?  Digital?  And are they “instant reads” or do they show results over time, like seismographs? And at what point do we measure?  See how easy it is to BS your way through any type of quiz or examination? (See “Yin and Yang”, Hum 75 final)

My college path was prologue. My career journey was complete. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Could we have sought out colleges with curricula to make (our childhood dream careers) come true? And what would those majors look like?

Anyway, here are the facts:

College “major”: Actually, my school used the term “concentration. Mine was economics and I was not a distinguished student, graduating sine laude. Emblematic of my struggles is the comment of the professor who gave me a generous grade on a term paper but wrote “you are to be commended for applying all of the fundamental precepts of the course.  Unfortunately, it appears that you have not mastered them.”

Career:  For “career” I’ll focus on the endpoint: securities and commodities compliance consultant, a member in good standing in the Nerd Herd. I was fascinated by fraud.  I loved the cocktail party chatter, the inevitable “what do you”?  My stock answer: “I’m into fraud.”

Okay, so what do you think, eh?  Absolutely no correlation, right?  But it’s a trick question.  Like  those multiple-choice questions that include the option “not enough information to answer”. The fact is, my “journey” through academia and my career “journey” followed precisely the same outline.

My entry in our freshmen “face book” states that my intended concentration was mathematics.  But it took only a few weeks of intermediate calculus to divert me to greener pastures.  The college offered a concentration in something called Social Relations, an admixture of sociology, social anthropology and social psychology. I was enrolled in its excellent survey course freshmen year, and it seemed like a good field of study.  The next year I took several courses, including one in, essentially, abnormal psychology, which captivated me.    But by the end of the year I found the Social Relations “discipline” to be kinda flabby.  Not enough substance.  I had taken the survey course in economics and ended sophomore year by switching to that concentration.

I took the necessary follow up courses in classical economics but I also took courses in the emerging field of behavioral economics.  I was fascinated.  And as Nobelist Richard Thaler has pointed out, much of true economics, i.e. behavioral, not classical economics, is about irrationality, a kind of deviant (at least vis a vis what Adam Smith would have predicted)  economic behavior.  And then . . .

Lawyering became my career. Business lawyering.  In house and in private practice (out house?).  Over the years I gravitated toward securities and commodities regulation and eventually to investment management and investment funds, took a side trip into senior management in that area but ultimately came back to compliance consulting, truly the study of abnormal behavioral finance.  My college path was prologue.  My career journey was complete.

But while we’re on the subject . . .

As this new topic penetrated the cataracts in my mind’s eye, I recalled a piece from decades ago in Mad Magazine.  The Usual Gang of Idiots, as I believe they called themselves, posited, “what if real-world objects were constructed the way that young children drew them?”  They somehow fabricated models of the airplanes, trucks, etc. as drawn/designed by 5-year-olds and displayed them in the piece. Which makes me think:

Many, most, all of us, as kids, especially in our single-digit ages, had dream careers. Spaceman.  Cop.  Baseball player. Etc.  Probably few of us realized those dreams.  But, just suppose we had wished to pursue those dreams as we became of age. Could we have sought out colleges with curricula to help to make them come true?  And what would those majors look like?

Certainly, in my youth I went through successive iterations of dream careers, but the one that comes immediately to mind is: cowboy.  Of course! With the proliferation of ‘50’s Westerns on television this is hardly surprising.  Christmas and birthday lists teemed with Western-themed goods. Fringed shirts.  Hats.  And guns, guns, guns.  I fondly remember the holy grail of the times, the Mattel Fanner 50*, a cap gun revolver designed to facilitate “fanning” – rapid-fire shooting accomplished by manually striking the gun hammer with the flat of the hand – that ensures that the bullets hit anything other than the intended target.  Thanks to Santa I received one of those beauties. I remember, Christmas morning, strapping on the bullet-studded belt w/ holster over my pajamas and assuming the position.  As I made believe I was the marshal in Dodge City facing down the week’s villains and fanned away, the belt and holster rotated around my middle so as to make the revolver more of a Fanny 50, but no matter.  I digress.

What would the course offerings in Cowboy Studies be, based on our childhood perception of the essentials of the profession?  Certainly CS 101, Bad Guy Identification (check for hat color).  CS 103 Cowboy Grammar and Usage (define “hoosegow”, “mosey”, and “pard’ner” and conjugate “to reckon” – I reckon, you reckon, he/she/it reckons).  CS 105 Indian Counterintelligence (deciphering smoke signals). CS 107 Bare Knuckle Fisticuffs. CS 109 Sidearm Engineering (converting your six-shooter into a perpetually reloaded, infinite firing weapon). And the more advanced CS 205, Geronimo Geometry (how to fell a mounted Indian at full gallop by shooting straight up in the air with your eyes closed).  Now that’s hardly a liberal education, of course, but certainly one to propel successful graduates into the Wild West, no?

– – – – – –

* Yes, just in the same way that the Red Ryder Range 200 Shot BB gun was for Ralphie.

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Amazing story (or, really, many stories), Tom. You go on tangent upon tangent and yet each topic you brush against — and then sidetrack into — is itself terrific and ridiculously funny. (And thanks for the shout outs to the much-cherished Mad Magazine and Jean Shepard.) And, somehow, this seeming string of digressions ends up being a perfectly coherent piece on this week’s prompt: majors (yeah, la-di-dah concentrations) and careers. Incidentally, I believe that the University of Wyoming, (the Cowboys, as it were), while it may not have a Cowboy Studies major, does provide scholarships in rodeo.

    • Tangents? Wait ‘til you see my secants! Thanks, John. Yep, while I do think that digression is the rhetorical equivalent of saying, “Look! Over there! I think that digression can be the epitome of logic. Huh. The logic of circularity as opposed to circular logic. Oops. More tangents.

  2. Suzy says:

    Tom, I love this story! But as to your first paragraph, it’s GaugeR, not just Gauge, and I agree it looks ridiculous, but what else rhymes with Major?

    I disagree with John’s characterization of your story as tangents and digressions. To me it seems to move straight from your Ec concentration, through your prevous flirtation with Math and Soc Rel, to your career in business lawyering and management. Then, the glorious second half imagining the course offerings to prepare for the career of your childhood dreams. Those CS courses are fabulous! I think this is begging for a much longer piece about courses for every childhood dream career!

    Thank you so much for this! It really made my day!

    • Thanks Suzy. Yeah, I know about “gauger” (which looks even more ridiculous). But I couldn’t find any pictures of gaugers. Geezers, yes but not gaugers. Besides, we went to school with people known to drop their “r”s.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Tom, I laughed throughout your wonderful story. Thank you for starting my day with a well written and extremely funny take on the meandering path of college majors and career choices. Best of all, I loved your cowboy ambitions. My husband, who ended up being a shrink, shared your passion for being a cowboy and still thinks fondly of The Lone Ranger. I’m not sure what the equivalent passion was for five-year-old girls back then. I fear it may have been princess, but a real one, not the Disney version.

    • Thanks, Laurie. I share your husband’s fondness for the Lone Ranger. The mask added mystery and thankfully he didn’t sing. Re the equivalent passion for girls, I’m not sure. I have sisters, one a year older and another two years older, and I don’t recall that they expressed any such passion. Maybe they were just smart enough to keep it to themselves.

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Tom, thank you for this adventure through college majors into your little boy Santa-fueled ’50s version of what to be when you grow up. So entertaining and I just loved all the courses that would get you the career you sought in the Wild West. Preposterously entertaining!

  5. James Kardon says:

    I think “applying all of the fundamental precepts of the course” without mastering any of them is ideal preparation for a career in law.

  6. James Kardon says:

    An old joke from Tom’s interest in math and economics: An economist is someone who is good with numbers but doesn’t have enough personality to be an accountant.

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