There’s this book from Michael Ende (the author of The Neverending Story) that has a short story called “The Prison of Liberty.” In it, a man is placed in a room with a hundred doors, all of them beautiful and different from each other. He is given only one set of instructions: opening one door immediately closes off all the others.
I will not tell you what this man decides to do. But sometimes (and sometimes more often than others) choice becomes a burden similar to the doors in Ende’s story — choice is overwhelming. And, as my extremely limited knowledge of economics tells me, choosing one thing always involves the unavoidable consequence of choosing that thing above others. Cost of opportunity is a double-edged sword.
And it goes several ways. There is a difference in how long you spend choosing spaghetti sauce at Wegman’s than in Nasties. The amount of choices that you have influences your ability to choose between things — the more choices, the harder to choose. I think there was a social psychology experiment that dealt with that. Four or five choices is manageable, whilst more than that starts to become annoying at first, overwhelming later.
So we’re at Cornell. Mind-opener if there ever were one. And regardless of what we learn or do not learn here, one thing is for certain: We are constantly informed of the massive amount of opportunities out there. We are told (and it is true!) that there are a million things we can do. There are hundreds of activities to dedicate ourselves to, insane amounts of things that can occupy our mornings, afternoons and even our adult lives.
The more flexible your major is, the more you’ve encountered the wonder of logging onto CoursEnroll and just choosing a time ... and seeing the amazing amount of things you can do in that timeframe. Not to mention what happens when you start wondering what to do once Cornell is over. (Yes, this may be me on a senior crisis. I’m sorry. I’m allowed to freak out sometimes). The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. The more we learn, the more questions we have. The more we choose, the more we need to keep choosing. However, as much as ignorance or inertia may seem attractive, the bildungsroman does not write itself. And I’m still trying to see how much of a noveau roman we can make out of college. I don’t think it’s that easy to pull off (then again, bildungsroman sounds a lot healthier, does it not?).
We are the consequence of a society that asks us to work hard for a goal. We are so goal-driven, sometimes I wonder whether this is because the bigger picture is harder to envision. We work towards one thing, achieve it … what’s next(?). We have to consciously create a space in which to feel satisfied, since our modus operandi thrives on our wanting more knowledge/money/friends/popularity/good grades/happiness/whatever. We feel, at times concerned, at other times terrified, by mediocrity. We work in research, do volunteering, internships, externships, take test after standardized test. We write, ad nauseam, the reasons by which we may be better for the job than the ten thousand other people interested in it. We learn that we can’t give up, that we cannot feel discouraged about not succeeding the first time. And we try again. Start the cycle over.
Sometimes, and at least I see this in many of us at Cornell, we are careful enough to cover our bases. We are in enough activities/classes/areas of interest to make sure that a failure in one does not imply mediocrity in the others. But this caution may take away from other things (like your time to actually excel in this one thing). I agree: Overspecialization is in itself difficult, since it involves the risk of still doing everything perfectly and possibly not achieving the desired outcomes (that school that did not admit you, that job offer that fell through). As we keep choosing, more doors disappear from our array of choices. We grow older, we study something else, we choose a circle of friends or a given hobby over others. How not to freak out, what is there to do?
Well, as Coldplay says, “Don’t Panic” — we live in a beautiful world (ladadee, ladeedah). I wonder why Ende never put up windows on the doors. I think that’s what the college experience is for. To know what else is out there, to choose, to know what to choose, or at least to know how to be okay with whatever we end up choosing. And I think that what people keep saying in all those career events is true: There is nothing we can’t go back from. Who knows, maybe (and most probably!) once you open a door, you’ll enter a room exactly as the one you exited before. Hopefully with a little more light. And more windows. And just as much fun.
To you guys receiving results for anything these weeks: We’re all there. That’s what makes it great. We’ll be fine. We always are. Just have fun along the way ... and if you are in need for a light reading go and get Ende’s book out of the library.
Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.