Should he attend a prestigious university to study a course he doesn’t really like?


Hi Ian, my son is at a crossroad. He is in an organisation that is offering him a scholarship to study something he is not passionate about at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Should he accept the scholarship, which comes with an 8-year bond, to study something he doesn’t really like, so as to attend an extremely expensive, and prestigious, university?

Doting Dad

Dear Doting,

Did you read my earlier post about Alice? I think what I wrote there might be helpful for you and your son. Do check out the article by clicking on the related link.


It starts with intention

But I am not simply going to put a one-liner for you as a response because I think there are many strategic issues here that we need to talk about. When we think strategically, we apply a set of perspectives on to the situation so that we can view it from all angles, and from there, make the right decision. The right decision will be different from one person to another, because each person will have a different intention to meet for the same situation. Hence, the first thing we need to find out is what your son’s intention is? Is his intention to attend an institution of pedigree, which, in this case, the solution would be pretty obvious; or is his intention to further his knowledge in the things he is passionate about, knowing that passion can take a person very far in his career? So you need to ask him to be totally clear about his intentions, using the Five Whys technique to help.



The next step after he has identified his intent, is to ask him what ways he can achieve it by. Yes, it may well be through the scholarship, but are there other ways he can get there. Often, there are many more ways to achieve what he wants to achieve, and he should not discount one over another. Let him lay them out without fear or favour.


This is where it becomes interesting. A constraint is not a hindrance to a situation; instead it is a necessary condition to be met. For example, if your son can only muster $100,000 from his savings towards his education, then his solution should not cost him more than $100,000. Note also, that this constraint is applicable only to your son, since this is his constraint, but it does not mean that the TOTAL solution must be $100,000 or less. If someone else can assume the additional burden above $100,000, for instance the scholarship, then that solution would meet his constraint.

Constraints shape the solution and this sets people apart when it comes to making the decision. Constraints could be related to money – maybe there is no way he, or you, can afford to go to such a prestigious university; or it could be an element of independence – that he is responsible for his own future. There are usually three to five constraints in a decision, so try to get your son to identify all of them, again without fear or favour. Concerns are the best source of constraints.

Balancing options with constraints

Once your son has done these, match each constraint against the different options and see if the option can meet the constraint. Do this for all the constraints, taking note of which option meets all, or most, of the constraints. Obviously, the option that best meets all the constraints will be the most logical choice. But not necessarily. We need to be sure. This sets us up for the last step…

Scenario planning

So we come back to the element of scenario planning. Take the top two options and apply the best-case, worst-case and most-like case scenarios to each of them. If there is a way to quantify the scenarios, then do that and use the expected-value method to determine the best option. But if you cannot, then use emotions to test the better choice. One usually feels most comfortable with the best choice. Once your son has converged onto this option, ask if this is absolutely something that he will go for. If the answer is yes, then, by all means, jump to it!

Layers in complex decisions

This is not a simple decision, one that will contain many hidden issues. Getting at the right decision must mean that these issues be addressed. Sweeping them under the carpet, and choosing not to address them by turning them into constraints, would ultimately cause him to make the wrong decision. This might cause further unhappiness and regret in the future. Avoid all that by making sure that the decision inputs are all complete. Then, and only then, can your son make the right decision for his future.

I wish both he, and you, a very happy and bright future ahead!

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