How to Choose a College Major You Can Use All Your Life

In Chapter 11 of 19 in his 2012 Capture Your Flag interview, Boxee co-founder and head of product Idan Cohen answers "How Did You Choose What to Study at College and How Has It Remained Relevant as You Have Gotten Older?"  Cohen references his time at Tel Aviv University and his shift in studies from computer science (CS) to physics and art history.  He takes a physics class and loves it.  As the math gets more complex, Cohen complements the physics classes with art, photography, music and architecture classes.  He finds apprenticeship or on the job learning the best ways to learn techical skills and recommends using the college experience to build useful day to day life skills and tools. 

This is Idan Cohen's Year 1 Capture Your Flag interview.  Cohen is co-founder and head of product at Boxee Inc, an online video software company.  Previous to Boxee, Cohen held telecom software innovation and developer roles at Comverse.  He was a Captain in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and graduated from Tel Aviv University with a Bachelors of Science degree in Geophysics and Art.


Erik Michielsen: How did you choose what to study at college and how has it remained relevant as you’ve gotten older?

Idan Cohen: So I chose to study physics and art history, and I got there in a pretty weird way, because I started off—I started off studying—I did one semester in CS, in Computer Science, and I just—I already knew how to program and it was a lot of math, and it was just like very theoretical programming, and I was just not interested and disengaged, and then I said, okay, I’ll switch to—I actually did a semester in chemistry, and I said, okay, this is also interesting but then I saw that actually what’s interesting for me is physics, then I did a semester in physics and I said, this is great. I enjoy it. It’s a little bit of like a manual for universe, you suddenly understand how things work, from very big things to very small things, to just this thing moving on the table and friction between the table and whatever, and gravity, I loved it. 

But I needed something a little bit more for the soul and as I saw the math getting more complex, I took art history in addition, and that was great because suddenly I was in the university, I was going to these very, you know, technical theoretical math and physics classes but then going and studying about art and photography and music and architecture, and it was awesome. 

Looking back at it, then I think it’s all just tools for life, and I think that that’s what most people should look at when they’re going to college, if you are going to go to college, I believe a lot in just apprenticeship, you know, a little bit like, we—like the path that I took, I mean going for instance into the army then having someone to learn from, how to code, or how to, you know, whatever we did there just—but someone that works with you, so you don’t need all of the theoretical knowledge but someone will help you get into it, and I really believe in that, just learning on the job. 

And on the other hand, there’s very few real professions that you can come out of academia with, so, you know, if you wanna be a medical doctor, probably you need to go there, although, as well, by the way, they learn a lot of theory and then they learn a lot on the job. If you wanna be an accountant or a lawyer, probably you need to go there ‘cause there’s a lot of theoretical material that you should learn. But then there’s so many things that just have nothing to do with sitting in class and studying. 

So if you are going to go there, just make sure you’re gonna study something that is very broad, very shallow, but is gonna give you tools—thinking tools that you can apply later in life. So from, you know, just understanding history or how things were made, and why, and being able to appreciate a work of art or, you know, physics, and just even though I probably forgot a lot of what I studied, and just being able to look at things and understand better how the—you know, what they’re made out of, and how exactly they function, I think that’s great, it’s just—it’s really useful day-to-day tools, and I wish that people would focus more about that. 

I think that when they go to college, they are so obsessed with what they’re gonna do in life, and we’re so privileged compared to our parents for instance, that probably we’re gonna—every 10 years, we’re gonna change what we’re doing, like there’s something about today’s environment that just allows us to do that, so don’t focus on that, just focus on what theoretical knowledge you can obtain now that will serve you through life, and not necessarily through the next 10 years.