When I was seven, I thought it would be a cool idea to try going off of the highest diving board at the pool. I don’t like heights and didn’t really know how to “dive” at that point. But my siblings were doing it, so I was going to do it too.
But when my turn came to jump the however-many-feet, I froze. I climbed all the way up the ladder, walked to the very edge of the board, and realized I just wanted to climb back down. But climbing down would mean walking right past a line of people who were brave enough to jump themselves, so I guess I figured that wasn’t really an option. Everyone was yelling at me to go, so I just kind of stepped off of the diving board; no jump or cannon ball, just a weird flop. Long story short, I hit the water at an awkward, sideways angle and basically blacked out in the pool.
I laugh whenever I think about it, because in retrospect it’s pretty funny. I was totally fine in the end, just embarrassed. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how moments like these are symptomatic of a “refusal to quit,” which I don’t think is always a good thing. Maybe the pool story isn’t relatable, but I think in college (and in life) we experience a lot of somewhat similar moments in which we finish something because we started it, and because everyone will judge us if we “climb back down the ladder.” Maybe it’s our major, our career path, a club, or something that has nothing to do with school. Collectively, we’ve been taught not to quit; that quitting is bad and that we should always see things through. I think, for all of our benefit, we should push back on that a little bit.
Most people come to Cornell with some sort of plan. Get good grades in classes, do research, get involved, win some things and then move on to this-or-that next step. Each template — whether applied to a future law student or a future artist — is flexible but consistent, and governs a lot of the “free spirits” on this campus. So it makes sense that it’s hard for us planners to become quitters.
Sometimes, quitting is a bad thing — obviously. Sometimes it means that you started something you shouldn’t have, or that you’re quitting something that you should keep doing. The stigmatization of quitting didn’t come out of thin air. But other times, it just means that you’re changing your mind. We shouldn’t view our actions as if they are zero-sum; just because someone doesn’t carry out their original ambitions, it doesn’t make them a quitter. It could just make them an adaptive person.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that the very nature of college seems like it was designed to encourage us to quit; if only so we can make room for new paths. We’re nudged to take classes that have nothing to do with what we think we want to study, and many realize that what they originally thought was wrong. I’d guess that a lot of the “I’m an X major” introductions you heard during your freshman year O-week are already untrue. Just last week I ran into a girl who I met as an English major who is now switching to computer science, and one of my friends who came in as a pre-med is now loving her anthropology major. If my sister hadn’t “quit” her International Relations major when she was in college, she wouldn’t have gone to medical school. A few weeks ago, she delivered a baby. The point is, changing plans, or “quitting,” opens doors, closes others, and amounts to much more than shame and confusion associated with saying “I quit.”
Maybe this all sounds obvious. There’s nothing novel about the idea that we should do what makes us happy, or change things when they aren’t right. And still, lately I’ve seen a lot of evidence that many people — including myself — haven’t fully learned that lesson yet. Strict plans are appealing in that they aren’t messy, but I think that when we adhere to them too precisely we risk going on auto-pilot and forgetting why we started them in the first place.
We’re heading into finals, so I definitely wouldn’t say that now is a good time to experiment with quitting or shaking things up. We can’t all change our majors, move to different countries and find all new passions — and that’s okay, because most of us don’t want to. But if any part of your life is feeling like that really high-up diving board — with no real offered benefit and a bunch of randoms encouraging you to do something that doesn’t sound good or beneficial — consider going back down the ladder.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.