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Taking the long way

| Friday, March 25, 2022

We’ve all been an audience to an unconventional success story at some point, listening in awe as motivational speakers or inspiring figures tell us about the twists and turns of their lives: How one day they decided they were sick of their lackluster office job and walked out and started their own business. How they majored in chemistry but ended up hating the subject, and now they work in history instead. How they jumped right into the working world after high school but decided to go back to school later and get their bachelor’s. Or how unexpected life circumstances caused them to step away from college for a few years, but at age 26 they were able to finish their degree. 

We relish the risk-taking and courage of our fellow human beings and celebrate such stories of non-traditional paths leading to happy endings — except when we are the main characters. We have a double standard when it comes to ourselves. While others are allowed to experiment, to change their minds, to fail and overcome, we must stick to the paved path and get to point B by the most direct route: Finish college in four years and have a fancy job position or a spot at a prestigious graduate school waiting for us after graduation. Anything less is a failure, a shameful situation to share with those asking about our plans after college or career aspirations. 

As a second-semester senior, though, I’ll gladly admit that I have less of an idea now what I want to do with my life than when I set foot on campus as a first-year. Some people come into college with a career in mind and stick with it the whole way through, and many others come open-minded about careers but eventually narrow down their interests and find a path that suits them. If you fall into either of these categories, congrats. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t envy your position at least a bit. 

But my college years have unfolded in the opposite direction, and I have come to see that that’s okay, too. Throughout high school, I was certain I wanted to become a doctor, but now that graduation is approaching, I’m not so sure — all career options are now on the table. Last spring, I was just about to apply to medical school — the natural next step from my pre-health studies — when I finally paused to evaluate my path. In the three undergraduate years leading up to that moment, I had kept my head down and charged ahead with plans to enter the medical profession, not stopping much to see what else was around me or to really think about my reasons for going into medicine. I had decided “what” while completely sidestepping the question of “why.” But when the time came to take a very serious step that would set the course of my life, I got the gut feeling to slow down and take a gap year. 

I had formerly scoffed at the idea — I wanted to keep chugging along immediately after college and not waste any time beginning what promised to be a long, grueling process to become a doctor. But I finally decided I needed to take the time to make sure that I was committed to this career. 

Gap years tend to draw eye rolls and raised eyebrows from older generations, many of our parents included, having the reputation of being a year of foolish frolicking and unmerited leisure for students who lack seriousness. This may be the common narrative, but it’s not the actual case. To take a year to explore outstanding interests, gain valuable skills and experiences and reflect on how we want to spend our lives is actually a much more practical and beneficial alternative to rushing into a field or taking on the financial burden of graduate school and finding ourselves filled with regret years later or looking back one day and realizing we jumped into the wrong job.

We live in a society that values speed and efficiency, getting rid of all unnecessary steps and reaching the finish line as quickly as possible. We value the glitzy allure of impressive job titles and big name companies, even if the work itself is less than glamorous and the company’s mission less than admirable. We all want to be able to tell our aunt we landed a selective internship or a competitive research position when we see her at holiday parties rather than have to admit that we’re still “exploring” different fields. We value decisions over discernment. No one wants to know how you’re choosing your career but only what you end up choosing. No one cares to hear that you’re in the process of wrestling with whether or not you should go to medical school, only that you’ve been accepted to one. 

While advisors might, in theory, encourage us to explore various fields and professions in our college years, practical reasons often force us to pick one and stick with it. If I do decide to apply to medical school at the end of college, I need to show years of clinical experience and activities related to the medical field to have a good shot at getting in — not details on how I tried out teaching, dabbled in finance, interned at a law firm and spent a summer on Capitol Hill. So in reality, I’m either locked into medicine from the beginning, or ultimately shut out of it. 

This can all get to your head when you’re between the ages of, say, 18 to 22 making consequential decisions for the course of your life. It might pressure you to prioritize speed, comfort and security in selecting a career at the expense of truly finding your niche. But not so fast. By daring to accept a bit of uncertainty and risk right now, and by having the patience to take the long road, we have a better chance of reaching the right destination and finding long-term fulfillment and stability. 

I don’t write to you from the destination. I write from the winding path — and from what I take to be a very early point on it. I’m not telling you to be the guinea pig while I bask in the security of a set career and postgraduate plans. In March of my senior year, I have just had two recent meetings at the Center for Career Development for guidance. I don’t know what I’m doing next year or where I will be, though my freshman self thought she would have been able to tell you. I write to you while taking the long way — because I don’t want to just get somewhere, but to be able to choose where I’m going by making a confident, informed decision. Some things are so important that they are worth taking a few extra steps to get right; our life course is one of them. 

We must resist buying into the taboo associated with trial and error and fight the urge to stay the course even if we feel ourselves being pulled elsewhere. Just as it is okay for other people to take their time, make mistakes, change careers, go back to school or choose not to continue schooling, it’s okay for you and me, too. Don’t be afraid to take the long way. You’ll get where you belong in due time. Better to ride the curves of a winding road, taking in all the sights and sounds and making a few extra turns, than to rush somewhere and realize you don’t like the destination. Don’t be afraid to open doors you never imagined yourself entering or to close ones you had always thought you would enter. Don’t bow to the pressure of the crowd to get somewhere fast and have it all figured out. Show yourself the same admiration as you do for those who take the time to get it right.

A former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis is a senior majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.

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