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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Process of Narrowing

<aduated elementary school, my class compiled a “yearbook.” Beside each of our class photos, we had to write what we wanted to be when we grew up. My best friend Laura, who had shiny brown hair and a large nose she would grow into by high school, wanted to live in Montana and rehabilitate wolves.  Because we were best friends, I wanted to do this too, but was conflicted by my fear of copycatting.  So I scribbled beside the photo of me (replete with middle-part and big-toothy smile), “I want to be a part-time lawyer and part-time fox rehabilitator in Tennessee.”

Every time I stumble upon that yearbook in my dresser at home, I cringe at the sheer absurdity of that answer. For one, it leaves so many questions unanswered, such as, Is fox rehabilitation an in-demand profession? What kind of training or certification would I need? How would I divide my time between fighting for justice and fighting for the lives of medium-sized predators that are cute but not nearly as cute as dogs? And why Tennessee, when there are certainly easier states to spell?

My fourth-grade mind is now a stranger to me. I do not remember why I wrote what I did, besides that I fervently wanted to be cooler than my best friend. In any case, it was the first time I seriously considered the future of my life as human being, and I do not think I have stopped since.  

Our Viewpoint theme for this week is “What are you going to do with your life?” The question is moan- inducing, vague, and a little contrived, but is nevertheless one we ask constantly. For the quarter of us who are graduating in three weeks, it is likely occupying serious headspace. For those of us who have more time, the question is still not insignificant, and the methodology for going about answering it is unclear. I would not suggest basing your choice off the peculiar preferences of your best friend.

The issue is, I suppose, that we go to a liberal arts college and have about a trillion doors open to us. We can pursue any of them, theoretically. There is no prescribed path, and it is difficult to figure out what you want to do when there is so much you can do—when you can be a lawyer, and a fox therapist, and live in Tennessee.

Our issue is the same issue I face every time I go to buy deodorant at the drug store: I just want an aluminum-filled, cancerous gel stick that is going to tamp down all my sweat and stink, but when I get to the deodorant isle, whabam! There are thirty-seven different female deodorants.  Degree? Secret? Dove? How is a modern woman supposed to choose?

Many of us Millennials were told as children that we could be “whatever we wanted to be.” Our parents thought they were being encouraging and kind, but in reality, the amount of options within “whatever” is overwhelming. Perhaps it would have been kinder to say something to the effect of, “sure, sweetheart, you can be whatever you want, but you are mediocre at math and fidget when you speak in public, so you probably shouldn’t be a math teacher. Have you thought about dentistry?”

At this point in our lives, we probably know what we excel in, what we like and what we dislike. Most us have chosen a major. That narrows our trajectories somewhat, but it still leaves them relatively open. I might like invisible solid antiperspirant, but there are four brands with clear antiperspirants, and how do I know what smells better: summer cucumber or powder fresh?

Once we narrow our options, we will know better what we want. We need someone or something to steal all the other deodorants so we just have to decide between two. We need to discover we are allergic to the chemical in powder fresh. Or we need to try all thirty-seven kinds, and learn that 97% of them are awful. (I’ll stop using the deodorant metaphor now, because it is making less and less sense.)

We talk about college as if it were an educational waiting room where we prepare for some amorphous “life” looming beyond. Part of that preparation always seems to be “keeping our options open.” We make decisions that will keep as many pathways available to us as possible out of fear that we might neglect one path and lose an opportunity.

But at some point, we must ask, what opportunity do I actually want? We have to choose. Our decisions must narrow and eliminate certain paths. This is not a bad thing, provided we make those decisions with wisdom and forethought.

Open options do not help us learn what we want to do; closed options do. When we have the knowledge that we do not want or cannot have a kind of profession, lifestyle or trajectory, we get closer to knowing which kind we do want and can have. There are two methods of gaining this knowledge: we can make decisions that close doors for us, or we can try some doors in order to learn that we want them closed. The latter is safer but more time-consuming, the former quicker but riskier; the combination of the two is quite effective.

We already do this. Every term and year at Carleton, we make academic and social decisions that draw us closer to some careers and lifestyles, while simultaneously shutting out others. Over breaks, we take internships and do programs to get an idea of what it would be like to spend our lives in some field, and these in turn inform our academic decisions. Gradually, we hone in on “the future,” and that life outside becomes less amorphous and looming. We work through a process of trial and error.

I think too often we believe decisions about our futures should simply come to us through some gut feeling. We expect epiphanies or feel we should have known what we have wanted “to do” since infancy. But how can an infant know she wants to be a furniture tester, or a golf-ball diver, or an orthopedist? Although I have never asked one, I doubt babies can even pronounce the word, “orthopedist.”

We must necessarily engage in the process of narrowing. Of course, narrowing can be frightening, because it means we must make decisions—and when we make decisions, there is always the chance they will be the wrong ones, and we will regret them. But regrets are inevitable. So long as we are we are thoughtful and think deliberately about our choices, the narrowing process can be manageable. We will, in all likelihood, end up some place we want to be.

In closing my article, I planned to quote a wonderful Mary Oliver poem called “The Summer Day,” which talks about one’s “wild and precious life.” But I glanced at Katie Koza’s article for this week (which Katie submitted hours before me, because she is much more on top of things) and noticed she had already made the reference. Early bird gets the worm, I guess. I should have known that every English nerd and their mother would quote Mary on this one.

So I won’t leave you with any profound quotes, but I will simply say that, when framed in terms of a process, the question “What am I going to do with my life?” becomes much less daunting. You don’t have to flounder. You just have to do something, use your brain and you’ll figure it out. I mean, isn’t this what we do every day in class? We are already well practiced.

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