hen I was about 10, my family packed up our minivan and made the long drive from our home in Michigan to upstate New York, ready for a week of relaxing in a “newly renovated” cabin on the shore of Lake Placid. Once we arrived at our planned destination, however, we were unpleasantly surprised by the state of affairs. The cabin was falling apart, with enough dust embedded in the furniture to give my dad a violent allergic reaction and to make my mom furious with its owners. It quickly became clear that we were going to have to play it by ear. We threw the coolers and beach towels back into the trunk of the minivan and ventured into the mountain landscape.
Up until that trip, our vacation agendas had always been meticulously planned, with a specific activity precisely assigned to every hour of every day. This time, however, our daily itinerary was determined entirely by whatever spontaneous desires we expressed as we munched on our breakfast cereal. We saw all the sights that upstate New York had to offer — never knowing what we were going to experience but embracing the possibilities of a thrilling journey or a simple disappointment. Being 10 years old, there was an indescribable magic to the creativity with which we approached the trip. Taking it day by day gave us the freedom to enjoy even the experiences that weren’t so great. A walk through the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum? An exhilarating adventure. A visit to the Cross Island Chapel, the world’s smallest church? An afternoon of mind-numbing monotony, but we rolled with it nonetheless. We learned how to find gratification in the small surprising victories and to enjoy one another’s company in a completely unstructured context.
In retrospect, I cannot remember another time in my life when I have felt so carefree while also being so unsure of where I was headed. Since middle school, I have always had a definite objective in mind for the future and a detailed plan for how to accomplish my goals. I was always told that if I just did my homework, played a sport or two and completed an arbitrary amount of community service hours, I would be accepted into the “right” university in the future. After so many years of sticking to that schedule, I find that I have been met with a surprisingly similar atmosphere in college — but this time the end goal is a career rather than an education. I have done all the things that I am supposed to do in order to get the right job after graduation. When I think about it though, I am not sure that I know what the right job for me looks like at all. How could I? I have diligently followed my plan, but I do not think I have truly done enough challenging and unfamiliar things that have forced me to question my goals or to reorient myself toward a future that maximizes fulfillment rather than just security.
I fear that we often pretend to know where we want to go or who we want to be without ever taking the time to enjoy the process of discovery. This fear is especially accentuated when I speak to my parents and grandparents about their lives as young adults. They all worked numerous jobs, lived in various places and credit the time that they spent experiencing professional chaos for their eventual ability to define what they wanted to do in the long run. It seems to me that this kind of general experimentation has gone out of style, but I think this is a bit misguided. What is so wrong with being wholeheartedly unsure?
As college students, this is the perfect time to stop following strict agendas and to venture down unfamiliar roads to the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Cross Island Chapel. We are young, relatively independent and in the process of defining the rest of our lives. We could decide to take huge risks, like backpacking around the world or starting a company after graduation. But there is also significance in smaller gambles, like taking a class in an unfamiliar subject or joining a club without knowing anyone. If we force ourselves to step outside our comfort zones more often, we will have the chance to develop skills that we don’t talk about often enough — resiliency and self-confidence. Having a clearly established plan will not always allow us to flourish as individuals, but testing our own strengths and interests through exploratory successes and failures will allow us to do so. The sooner we learn to take advantage of opportunities for personal growth through experimentation, the better off we will be as we face the trials and tribulations of our adult lives. Sometimes, the best plan to have in college might be to have no plan at all.
Rachel Mucha is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and is one of two alternating columnists of OLD SOULS, which appears every other Friday.
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