March 6, 2012

Life, Unstructured

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I’ve now been a columnist for 25 months, having started in the spring semester of my sophomore year. This will be my 34th column for The Cornell Sun. I’ve covered a fair number of topics in my time writing — the media, court cases, tax reform, etc. — but not once have I written about the only subject I can credibly claim to know better than anyone else: myself.

I’m not about to turn this column into a diary entry, mind you, but fair warning: I’m going to be a bit more reflective than usual. Perhaps it’s the second semester senior in me. That, and the remnants of last night’s gin and tonics.

The conversations I’ve had with many of my fellow classmates on the subject of their futures suggest widespread uneasiness and uncertainty — a condition undoubtedly made worse by our rapidly approaching graduation. Departing college is an experience riddled with contradiction: It is exciting, thrilling and momentous — yet perilous, disruptive and unsettling. Until now, our lives have been largely defined by our education; though we may have struggled to find meaning or inspiration in our studies, there was never any question as to what we’d be doing tomorrow, or the next day or the day after.

As college concludes, so too does that certainty. Faced with entering the so-called “real world,” we’re compelled to reckon with the very core of our identity. We ask ourselves: Who am I? What will I do? What makes me happy?

Think about it for a moment. Do you have a definite answer? I sure as hell don’t.

For a long time I couldn’t help but envy those who do — the ones who cemented post-graduation plans early, quickly extinguishing the existential angst that arises when one stands on the precipice of life outside the University. The ones who, at this young age, already feel a strong sense of purpose — a deep, intrinsic, unequivocal desire to work towards some end that inspires them. They, I figured, were the most fortunate.

At least, I assume they sleep well. How many countless nights have I been kept awake by the question of my future? How many students, I wonder, at any given moment, on any given night, lay silently in their beds, poring over every option, playing out every permutation of every possibility, desperately searching for the one, perfect plan that stands out as superior to the rest?

Too many, to be sure. Plans are fine and well, don’t get me wrong, but I think the uncertainty of life can be as much a blessing as a curse. We live in a vast, complex, beautiful, mysterious world — why commit to walking through it on a single path?

Rather, let’s resist predictability. Let’s embrace the twists and turns of life. And most importantly, let’s accumulate a few good stories along the way. I think Professor Stephen Weeks (as reiterated by NPR host Peter Sagal) put it best: “Sometimes … the best way to live your life is to choose the experience that will have the most anecdotal value.”

That may strike you as rather vain advice; after all, it seems unwise to structure one’s life around collecting stories best suited for bar counters and dinner parties. There’s wisdom in that statement, though, that I think can be very instructive for us students.

The culture of our university places so much emphasis on neatly transitioning from one segment of life to the next. Graduate. Get a job (great firm!). Work for three years. Graduate School. Higher paying job (better firm!). Partner. Retirement. Sailboat? Die.

But when I listen to the greatest stories — the ones that really have significance, the ones that strike at something fundamental to the human condition — I can’t help but notice that it’s in the scrappy unpredictability of life that living really happens. There in the unanticipated situations, chance encounters and quick decisions, we discover who we are and what we’re made of. Inspiration and innovation are as much a product of serendipity as they are of intellect; so while the disruptions in our lives come with high risks, they can also potentially yield even greater rewards.

Am I suggesting that you drop out of school, turn down your job offer and hitchhike across the country? Not at all (and for what it’s worth, that didn’t really work out for Chris McCandless). There’s nothing wrong with having plans, or following a career path. Depending on what your goals are, doing so may be a necessity. By the same token, though, we shouldn’t be afraid of not having plans or of the consequences when our plans fall through. There are so many possible things to do in this world — more than I or anyone else could ever fathom. The plans we make represent one infinitesimally small portion of those possibilities. So why fret when things don’t go according to plan?

Go on an adventure. Do something creative. Invent something. Play music. Learn a skill you otherwise wouldn’t have. Work odd jobs. Busk. By all means, be a productive member of society, but be productive on your own terms. Take time, take risks and take pictures.

If you fail, you’ll have a good story. If you succeed, you’ll have a great story. And at the end of the day, wouldn’t you at least like to have a few of those?

David Murdter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at dmurdter@cornellsun.com. Murphy’s Lawyer appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: David Murdter