Patrick Combs Self-Help Guide for Needful College Freshmen

If there is a recipe for self-help books, two of the necessary ingredients are an endorsement from a “name” self-help or motivation guru/author and trotting out the old Teddy Roosevelt “man in the arena” mantra. Combs has both: Tom Peters’ kudus on the cover and The Roughrider on page 28. What’s missing is a touch of truth and reality.

Nowhere does Mr. Combs describe his own success (perhaps “I knew I’d never be happy until I got a self-help book published!”) or many student’s real world (perhaps a chapter on majoring in the success of your dysfunctional family, lack of money for traffic fines, broken or stolen personal property, drugged-out roommate and boy/girl friend issues). Instead, Mr. Combs supplies his readers with 154 pages detailing and expanding on a single maxim: figure out what you want to do it life, and do it. Major in Success has some major flaws as well as some great advice. Nonetheless there is a great deal to be gathered from Major in Success, but probably not in the manner Mr. Combs planned. Some great lessons can be learned from understanding not just what is in the book, but what it is that makes the book successful, despite its shortcomings.

There are several flaws in Mr. Combs’ advice. First and foremost, the text is replete with anecdotal “evidence” and devoid of meaningful, quantifiable facts and statistics, and those used are rather disingenuous. In the chapter “Never Mind the Grades” he cites “a recent study by the College Review Board” indicating GPA is below ten other factors considered by employers (47).  He uses this “fact” to buttress his argument to “never mind the grades”. He fails to mention that in a very competitive job market when ALL of the applicants have those first ten factors, it will likely be factor 11—GPA—that makes the difference.

The second glaring discrepancy relates not only to grades but also his contradictory attitude towards the significance of grades. His theory “college is for developing your talents to learn and do, so that you can learn and do anything you like” (20) begs the question “then how is that measured?” Most people, including employers, will use grades as the yardstick for learning ability. Mr. Combs fails to address the significance of a student’s “focus” or major in college.

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He claims if time spent on “extracurricular activities is having a negative impact on your grades, don’t panic” (50). He advises telling the prospective employer to the effect “sure my grades were mediocre, but various club memberships and internships were my priority.” Ask yourself if you would like to say that on a job interview, or “I managed to knock down a 3.7 GPA with a major in math and a minor in history while working 25 hours a week to help pay tuition and board”?

Throughout the text Mr. Combs offers a “follow your inner voice, go for happiness, not money” philosophy. Goals change, life events come unexpected and being prepared to shift gears quickly is a key asset. A student may regret having used his college time to develop his knowledge and skills in an area of particular interest only to be caught short later when his interest, income needs, or location changes.

The “follow your passion regardless of income” theory works well for those without monetary needs, retirees, and even second or third career adults capable of turning a hobby into a profitable business. However, the practicality of the theory may come into question years later, when either a more fundamental education (liberal arts) gives flexibility or a mainstream “certificate” program (nursing, teaching) provides job security.

There are no less than three very good reasons to read this book. Mr. Combs has filled the margins with hundreds of “hot tips” and quotations. Included are a large number of references to other texts and sources. He also provides an excellent chapter entitled “Classes Worth Their Weight in Gold”, detailing almost a dozen courses with universal value. A concentration on these classes will do wonders for marketplace flexibility. The chapter “Really Get Into It” provides a detailed list of seventeen items designed to turn interest into expertise.

There are less obvious lessons to be learned from Major in Success that are arguably just as important as the ideas expressed in the text. Mr. Combs has a “Special Thanks” page listing probably a hundred or more persons who assisted him. Success is usually a team sport, and the value of associating with mentors and goal-oriented people is invaluable. The book is very well organized; the Table of Contents lists three major sections divided into twenty-nine succinct chapters. If there is ever a life lesson to be learned, particularly for a college student, it is the value of organization.

Additionally the text is filled with lists. Making lists is essential for planning, organizing, and tracking in college and throughout life, for anyone.  Finally, the format of the text is very effective, with graphics, margin notes, and lists in a unique and “out of the box” manner. Individuality cannot be overemphasized. Today there is no typical college student, and whether the reader is an eighteen-year-old freshman or an older adult returning for a second career they will find something in Major for Success applicable to their specific situation.

Works Cited

Combs, Patrick. Major in Success. California: Ten Speed Press, 1998.

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