Almost a year ago from right now, I was in the middle of making what I considered at the time to be the Biggest Decision of My Life. I thought that I was going to decide the fate of the rest of the rest of my life by choosing where I went to college, what I majored in, and other exceptionally inconsequential decisions. Adolescent Society (or at least, my high school guidance counselor) had told me that I had to know who I was, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to live, and who I wanted to become, all as a an oh-so-worldly-and-knowledgeable senior in high school. Now that I have made said decisions and am living the life I dreamed of (and dreaded) lo those many months ago, I have learned one or two things about right and wrong decisions. I will be the first to admit that none of them have gotten me any closer to being a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or a small-time con artist or whatever it was, in my hubris and my naivety, I decided I was going to be.
One of the first non-sequitors I realized about this Life Altering Decision I supposedly made is that nothing is as life-altering as they tell you it will be. From the way college brochures and teen magazines tell it, mass fanfare will accompany a correct decision and mass destruction will follow an ‘incorrect’ one. I believed them, of course, as much agony ensued on choosing right. But now that I have made the decisions, and am living with them, it’s certainly not so clear-cut. Of course college is fun, but it’s hardly the striped-scarfed, colored-leafed Tree of Knowledge OR the party-a-night drunken tomfoolery the movies portray (and that I believed. Was high school like the movies? No. Did that stop me from believing what the movies had to say about college? Well.). I think I’ve made the right decision, I’m certainly learning and having fun, but really the only moment that’s ‘taken my breath away’, as the saying goes, is when I tripped and fell on the stairs outside my dorm. Maybe I’m anomaly and other people do feel an immediate sense of The Right Decision. But as wrong as I was in believing it, it is wrong for society (that is, the SAT and college guides and teen magazines and high schools and the entire industry that has sprung up around The Decision) to make that Decision into anything more than it is. Here is what it is: not much. A choice of snow over sun, mostly. Maybe of prestige over price, or of urban over suburb. But it is decidedly NOT a choice of success over failure, no matter where you end up. (Did I believe the people who told me this, that one year ago? Ahem.)
As for the career choice – does anyone get to say, “I want to be that” and automatically be it? It is a curious thing to ask a five-year-old what they want to be when they grow up (why do we do this?), but an even curioser thing to ask an eighteen-year-old. What does either know of what his chosen profession is, or what is will take to get into that profession? Countless children of both ages have said they want to be doctor – but that does not make them one. Toys and make-believe generate their concept of what a doctor is: play doctor kits or television hospital dramas. Such a choice may be underscored by a love of science, or a desire to help sick people, but there are many people who are not doctors with that. A major means little to nothing about what you will become, in my (admittedly limited) experience. Why is there such a pressure to choose what work we will do, precisely? I am by no means advocating not having a job; I am merely pointing out that what one wants to be is hardly ever what one actually becomes. It is not wrong or undignified to do work that isn’t exactly what you said you wanted to be when you picked your major, and I might even say it is necessary and sometimes inevitable. I want as much as anyone to ‘turn out okay’, but just when does one ‘turn out’? I will strive to become what I thought I wanted to be, what I dreamed of being, but I might learn that it isn’t right for me or just isn’t possible. It is no fault of mine to have a job that is different form what I thought I wanted to do when I was a senior in high school, making the Decision of a Lifetime, and I am beginning to learn that it just may be a virtue.
While I was foolish for being taken in by the shiny, attractive claims that my Life was in my oh-so-capable hands when I picked where to go to college and what to major in, the industry surrounding mine and my peers’ belief in those erroneous epithets is really who’s at fault. High schools seniors are already arrogant and self-righteous – no one needs to be giving them more power, more choice, or more control than they already have, be it authentic or not. Adolescents deserve to be told what is real and true about life, not coddled and cajoled by advertisers or schools or high school guidance counselors trying to curry money or favors or whatever abstract thing it might be that an eighteen-year-old might have to give. So here is what it is, advice to my year-ago self that I certainly wouldn’t have believed: Life is not so dramatic as a movie, and neither is college. Saying you want to be something does not make you any closer to actually being it. Not becoming what you said you wanted to be isn’t a vast tragedy, it’s just life. I can only hope that, a year from now, I will have grown and learned enough to look back on my current self with as much benevolent head-shaking, and maybe this time, I’ll be able to listen to advice.