Mapping out your life is overrated

A wise friend of mine recently said to me, “Knowing what you want to do is not quite the same as knowing exactly where you can go.”  School and society put so much emphasis on the where that i lost sight of the what as i came closer to where i am now:  my last semester of college.

This academic year has changed me in strange ways.  I struggled a lot last semester with insecurities i never knew i had, most of which got in the way of my learning.  For the first time in my life, i found my classes to be an inconvenience and a drone (this partly had to do with the kinds of classes i was taking that semester, but it was also my attitude towards the learning that got in the way).  Needless to say, it was a highly disappointing semester, resulting not only in dropped grades but also a further drop in self-esteem.  (Just to be fair, one class and the professor that taught it encouraged me to express myself, which positively changed my approach to writing, but this didn’t change the fact that i felt oppressed by my other classes and professors.)

This semester has been interesting in that the four classes i’m taking are so different from each other and yet still overlap in various ways, in ways that motivate me to synthesize the thought products of each class with each other, which in turn makes me strive hard in all of them.  One class, Tactical Media, is a graduate course cross-listed as an offering to undergraduate upperclassmen, but the class is mostly graduate students.  I was intimidated at first by their professional accomplishments and general outspokenness, but i’m starting to find it easier to talk to these people than my fellow undergraduates.  There is a higher degree of respect for each other and not just a willingness but a desire to get to know one another.  I think it might have to do with the lack of competition.  They’ve already accomplished a great deal in their respective fields, and they’re all here for different reasons (the course belongs in the Arts and Public Policy department, but students come from all different departments, backgrounds, and careers).  They’re here to further their own individual projects, whether it be producing a social activist movement or sparking a debate about urban etiquette, but while doing so, they work together and share their individual interests and skills.  At the undergraduate level, most students are in the same boat of graduating and moving on to their respective fields.  Whether they admit it or not, undergrads are out to outdo one another in order to get a job or make it into grad school.  But going back to why i started talking about this class in the first place, it’s a key element in my learning this semester in that it is helping me become more outspoken in all of my classes; to put it simply, it’s encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone, but in a welcoming environment.  There is no competing—only sharing.  We don’t even compete for grades, because we grade ourselves at the end of the semester.  Discussion in this class is therefore as democratic and open as it can get; besides the individual projects (which are always collaborative), we are all in the unified project of progressing as a class.

To sum up my semester, my Existentialism and Phenomenology class is just as great as i expected it to be, even helping me cope with my quarter-life crisis (which i’ll get to in a moment); Youth Media is further piquing my interest in alternative education and education reform (more on this in another post?); Intro to Media Studies, a mandatory introductory course i’ve put off taking until now, is basically a review of everything i’ve learned as a Communications major; and Tactical Media is serving as a platform for putting all the theories i’ve learned into action (more on this in another post, too, hopefully).

Having school go smoothly like this has been immensely helpful in focusing my attention on “life problems.”  I’m graduating in two months, and that is terrifying.  I’m the first to admit that i’m scared of leaving the comforts of school, where my decisions rest in the realm of choosing classes and essay topics, and the only problems that get in my way of being a student are bureaucratic.  “Life” presents much bigger problems:  there is only one thing that i feel that i must accomplish before i die, and that is to fall in love and start a family.  But in order to live until i accomplish that, i need to support myself financially, and to do that, i need to find a job.  And that is where the problem begins.

When i was a high school senior, i was faced with the same questions every other senior was trying to answer for themselves:  after graduating from here, where do i go?  For most of the people in my social circle, the obvious destination was college.  It didn’t really matter what you wanted to do; it was assumed that no matter what you wanted to do, the place you needed to go to in order to do it was college.  In my family too, it was always understood that i’d be going to college.  Starting junior year, i had taken the steps necessary in fulfilling this accomplishment of “getting into college”:  I took the SAT’s and started the college selection process.  Regarding the latter part, i didn’t get very far.  My favorite academic subject at the time was English, so i went to Mrs. Kenny, the college and career counselor (and wife of Mr. Kenny, my junior year English teacher, whom i miss dearly), and asked her which schools would be good for studying English.  She gave me a list of schools and wished me luck.  It was several pages long, and narrowing it down by location and selectiveness didn’t make the list any more manageable.  I found schools like Swarthmore and Vassar and Sarah Lawrence appealing, but my parents would say they’ve never heard of any of them and tell me to apply to Ivy League schools.  Frustrated and overwhelmed, i put off the venture of selecting colleges for the time being and finished junior year.

Then came senior year, and along with it, more pressure to complete the college application process.  Everyone around me was so certain where they wanted to go, and i still had no idea (which seems to be the case at basically every stage of my life).  I think i wanted to stay relatively close to home, but really, what it came down to was that i wasn’t sure if i wanted to go to college at all.  I didn’t know what i wanted to do in life, so how could i know where i was to go next?  I was just going through the motions of the college application process because everyone else around me was and because that is what my parents expected of me.  What i really wanted to do was go to culinary school, because food and cooking was the one passion of mine that i knew would never die, but my parents were firm in their decision to put me through college before i considered anything else.  You can do whatever you want, but only after you get a Bachelor’s degree, they said.  Begrudgingly, i applied to the three obvious choices:  Rutgers (kind of obligatory for an East Brunswick High alumnus, and my brother went there), NYU (brother went here as well), and Columbia (parents’ choice).

While going through these motions, i had an existential crisis.  For the first time in my life, i was depressed.  I still can’t pinpoint the exact cause, and i don’t much care anymore, but i think the underlying problem was that i was pushed a little too far to succeed in school.  That pressure came mostly from myself, but also from the general attitude of the student body and the faculty and administrators of EBHS.  None of the pressure came from my parents; they liked it when i got good grades, but they never forced them out of me.  I realized over the years that the entire East Brunswick school system has a way of cultivating this kind of self-administered pressure to succeed.  When i arrived at Frost Elementary School as a new student, i immediately realized that the teachers were stricter than the ones i had in Virginia.  I was never given my class schedule, and no one was very friendly, so for the first few days, i followed my classmates around, not knowing which class i was going to next.  One day, i ended up in Math class without my math book, and the teacher was highly disappointed.  “You need to be responsible,” he said.  He wasn’t hostile in any way (in fact, he was a very nice man), but somehow, that idea that you needed to always be responsible was ingrained in me from that moment on, and i was reminded of its importance at every grade, by every teacher, in every classroom, and even in most hallways.  It was the East Brunswick K-12 mantra.

In the middle of senior year, getting into college was no longer the object of my concern.  I was cracking under this pressure of being a good student, producing good schoolwork, getting good grades.  I think there came a point where i realized that no matter how much i tried, i could never be perfect, and instead of liberating me, this realization threatened me.  Being responsible doesn’t mean being perfect, you might say.  It doesn’t even mean getting good grades, you might add.  But by “being responsible,” what all those teachers and administrators meant was that being responsible was a necessary part of being a good student.  Schools don’t train you just to be good students; they’re training you to become good workers, only the reward is good grades, not a salary.  That’s why they place such importance on responsibility and instill that value in you to the point where you adopt it as your own.

When i couldn’t finish my work or understand what i was learning, i felt that i had failed at more than being a student.  I felt that i had failed at being myself.  I was operating under the constant fear that what i was doing wasn’t good enough.  I couldn’t get through the readings.  I was frequently absent because i couldn’t finish my work.  After winter break, i finally admitted to myself that i had to do something, so i bit the bullet and dropped some courses and added a lunch period for the first time in high school.  Pretty soon, i felt better, but not entirely better.  I don’t remember the details, but what really lifted me out of that depression was Camus’ The Stranger.  I have a strange relationship with existential literature.  My senior year English class reading list was dominated by the existential works, and i can remember how each work coincided with my depression.  These works weren’t read back to back (i.e. there were other books in between), but nevertheless, they marked the distinct stages of my depression.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was the first existential work i’d ever read, and i was shaken by the hopelessness of R & G’s situation.  It didn’t depress me, but this was when i was beginning to fall into depression.  Then we read Waiting for Godot, and as much as i was deeply disturbed by that hopelessness again, i wanted to grapple with it and get at the heart of what the characters were feeling.  There was something crucial there to be discovered, i thought.  We were reading it at the height (or the all-time low) of my depression, when i could barely eat or sleep.  And finally, we read The Stranger.  I remember telling Ms. Nelson, my teacher, that these existential works made me feel “helpless,” but i think what i really meant was that they were helping me face my own helplessness.

When April 2006 rolled around, i had to figure out where i was gonna go for college.  I had to choose between Rutgers and NYU, and i chose NYU because i liked the food in NYC.  You might think i’m crazy for basing my choice on such a superficial factor, but the truth is, choosing to go to college and choosing between colleges were both choices that had no meaning for me.  I know i was lucky to even have the choice, but in a sense, i didn’t deserve to make that choice, because it wasn’t what i wanted.

The problem is in trying to answer questions like, “What do you want to do?” and “Where do you want to go?” when you’re not ready to answer them.  This is why i haven’t been searching for jobs lately, just like how i stopped searching for colleges.  I don’t know what i want to do in the near future.  And i don’t think i can settle for something i merely can do.  Sure, i’ve done my share of going to career fairs, sending out resumes, and emailing thank you letters.  I even went through two nerve-wracking interviews.  But i knew i didn’t want any of those jobs, and there was no way i could act like i wanted them.

When i applied to college, i was falling into “everydayness,” as Heidegger calls it.  I was doing what everyone else was, what was expected of me, what made “sense” in the context of my social group and upbringing.  I probably should have taken a year off after high school, but i fled from having to make that choice by following the path laid out for me.  Fortunately, it turned out to be a good choice because it is here that i discovered my love for Philosophy (albeit too late to be able to major in it), but this time, i am not going to let myself fall into despair like i did in high school.  I’m going to take the time to decide what i want to do before going anywhere.  I decided a few weeks ago that i’d really like to pursue graduate studies in Philosophy, so i’ll be reading more Philosophy in preparation for that and studying for the GRE.  It’s going to be tough to get into a Ph.D. program without a B.A. in Philosophy, but i’m not gonna worry about that right now.  My ultimate goal is to become a teacher or professor and either start my own school or contribute in some way to education reform.  These are lofty goals, and until now, i’ve always assumed that i’ll never accomplish any of them.  I don’t have that kind of tenacity or perseverance, i’d tell myself.  How could i write a thesis when i can barely write a 20-page paper without losing interest in the material three pages in?  But the more i read philosophy, the more i realize that it’s the only thing that sustains my interest.  Besides, if you only limit yourself to what you know you can do, you’re being a little unfair to yourself and to the world.  By virtue of being human, we have a moral obligation to contribute something to humanity, and we need to contribute to our fullest extent.

So i’m going to do it, and this blog post will hold me liable.  I’m going to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy someday and teach.  It’s always been my dream to teach.  But in terms of the immediate future, i’m hoping to be able to teach English in Korea for a year or two.  I want a change of scenery, i want to teach, and i want to read more Philosophy.

I’m taking my time, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I just hope no one’s forcing themselves into an unhappy future by way of everydayness.  Just remember what all the Existentialists said:  anxiety is the natural state, and the only way to live life with meaning is to face it head-on.  If all else fails, i recommend you pick up anything by Camus or Sartre or Kierkegaard or Heidegger.  And if you do know what you want to do but aren’t sure how to go about doing it, find comfort in my friend’s words, “Knowing what you want to do is not quite the same as knowing exactly where you can go,” and remember that if it’s something you truly want, you’ll find a way to it.

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2 Comments

Filed under academics, career, college, personal, philosophy

2 responses to “Mapping out your life is overrated

  1. Well, you are at NYU, after all! Use the information available to you wisely, and you shall succeeeeeeeeeddddddddddddddd.

  2. N, it was really interesting to read this and get some insights into what you have become passionate about. It’s fascinating and I wish you best of luck in teaching abroad and pursuing graduate studies in Philosophy. I think it’s great that you found something you enjoy at NYU!

    I think when we were in high school, very few people really had a passion or knew what they wanted to do. I used to hate those questions too, and I am not a fan of them. But I think figuring out what you want to do is a part of college and a part of growing up. But I think we have to remember how lucky we are to have grown up in the U.S. and relatively well off to even have these choices to make. Our parents and people in the developing world today simply don’t have that luxury and are forced to choose careers they aren’t necessarily passionate about.

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