deciding what to do

“I should have studied humanities, I’m really such an artsy person.”

One of my closest friends told me this last week. Of course, she’s studying computer science. This isn’t an uncommon sentiment here at Stanford, or anywhere, really. People are pretty bad at being self aware and realizing what they really want; throw in the time constraints of choosing a major and the pressure to do something lucrative or impactful, and it’s no surprise that a lot of us make choices we later regret.

It’s a hard thing, to figure out what you want with the rest of your life. Usually, we’re told that we don’t have to make that decision yet. In high school, they said, “You don’t have to decide until college.” When we came to college, they said, “You don’t have to pick a major for two years.” When we graduate, they’ll say, “Come to McKinsey! You can do anything you want when you leave, so you don’t have to decide for another two!”

Unfortunately, the fundamental decision doesn’t get any easier as you put it off. Deciding what you want to do is about knowing yourself, not about knowing what’s out there. A lot of people don’t know what they want to do, and rather than taking the time to figure it out, take classes and majors and jobs with “exit opportunities” (read: banking or consulting). Most of them end up figuring it out eventually, but I think it’s important to do things with purpose. Not to necessarily know exactly where you’re going (there’s a lot of value in the unexpected adventures and detours), but to know yourself well enough to know what’s important to you and where you’re generally headed. To have a reason for everything you do, other than, “This cuts the fewest opportunities out of my future.”

A bad way to pick a job is to optimize the number of ways to quit said job.

The solution, of course, is to spend more time reflecting, figuring out what it is that matters and how to get there. At the same time, it’s really hard for us to acknowledge when we don’t know where we’re going, which makes it hard to prioritize making time to think. This is doubly hard at Stanford, where everybody is expected to have a purpose and their shit together, but in general, uncertainty isn’t usually a desirable trait. The expectation is sufficiently stifling that when asked, I usually try to deflect such questions, citing some vague answer about founding a company (which, by the way, is a terrible answer; nobody should plan in advance to start a company for the sake of starting a company, but that is probably a different post in its entirety).

The authentic answer is, “I have no idea.” And the sooner I start acknowledging my uncertainties, the sooner I can start figuring out the answer.

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