March 25, 2013

SCHAIN: The Road Not Taken

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Our generation of college graduates is suffocated by the freedom of choice.  As a society, we value personal agency and initiative, but the seemingly boundless opportunities from which we derive much anticipatory glee can be the Achilles’ heel of an inquisitive soul. In our fourth year here, my friends and I are making our way at various speeds toward whatever futures lie in store for us, but so many of us are stuck, grounded by indecision about the next step. Yes, this is a universal symptom of impending graduation (and consequently, the first significant decision of our adult lives), and this feeling probably weighs heavily on any lost liberal artist of any given generation. But it seems at least intuitive that for young people today, this process of deciding on the next step is more complex than it was for our parents or grandparents, given the vast resources at our disposal for decision making.

The gargantuan amount of information and opportunity to which we are subject via the Internet is overwhelming. Those of us who haven’t dreamt of being a plant biologist since the age of eight, those of us who take classes in three different subjects every semester without repeating a theme, those of us who find frank stability destabilizing and chase our intellectual whim around like a dog with its tail — we are adrift in a sea of possibility.  It seems from the undergraduate’s perspective, looking out into the abyssal post-Cornell world, that there are an intimidating number of potential life paths (this, of course, is also a cruel illusion. Actually securing a job is quite difficult, as it turns out. Whoops). We just can’t fathom having to decide on something. We’re paralyzed by the fear of solidifying, concretizing, and thus, we conclude, ending life as we know it. Our entire lives up to this point have been spent deliberately “diversifying” our interests to make ourselves more “unique” and “attractive” applicants in various pools of peer competitors. This well-roundedness is a fantastic attribute for a liberal arts undergraduate, but now, we’re forced to abruptly curtail these various interests in favor of a single commitment.  How does one hear their calling amid so much noise?

Psychologist Barry Schwartz discusses the debilitating effects of too much choice in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.  Schwartz’s central argument is that with an increase in options comes an increase in indecisiveness but also heightened expectations of the outcome, resulting in both regret and disappointment no matter what choice we end up making. We hold ourselves to such high standards of control over our own lives because we have so much information to help guide us, and so few methods by which to eliminate possibilities. When making decisions about post-graduate life, this neurotic sense of control triggers frantic “what-if” scenarios in our minds about the road not taken.

We have learned to explore, but have never been forced to commit. From within our collegiate cocoon of contentment, youthful ignorance and unrecognized privilege, we’re shielded from the cold truth: Finding a life path most often does not stem from passionate whim but from personal necessity. For a startlingly large percentage of people, this vocational choice is not really a choice at all. Those who need jobs for literal survival are coerced into this decision by factors much stronger than preference. Others unquestioningly inherit the family business and find happiness in the path into which they were born. We have the incredible luck to be able to actually choose what we want to do, and this freedom is our undoing.

All of our lives, our well-intentioned elders have assured us that we can “be whatever we want to be.” We’ve been given the gift of choice, but nobody ever suggested the importance and difficulty of deciding what to want, or why to want that thing. It’s just assumed that this wanting comes naturally to someone’s life, predetermined like how growing up in Boston makes you a Red Sox fan. And in an era when information on any possible inquiry is at our fingertips, perhaps we’ve taken on more responsibility for ourselves than we can handle. In this age of choice, we seem to be compromising the work of that ancient invisible hand of lucky coincidence, circumstance and naturally occurring opportunity that takes the burden slightly off the hunched shoulders of the college senior, neck cramped as she bites at her cuticles and stares blankly into the infinite depths of Idealist.org.

We of privileged America believe strongly in the correlation between our chosen profession and our happiness (discussion about the value of this credence will have to wait for another 800-900 words).  When I look at myself and at my graduating peers, I see a lot of extremely promising young visionaries squinting, trying to make out what that future career is that will make us happy. But with job websites and Google at our disposal, there is an instant availability of promising leads that, taken all at once, results in crippling indecision. Thinking we can have it all because it is literally at our fingertips, will we indecisively waffle through life chasing whim to the ends of the earth? Young adults of our generation go through an average of seven different jobs in their twenties alone. It’s true; I read it online.

Skyler Schain is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Skyler Schain