The day before the end of advanced course registration for the Fall Term 2014, I found myself pulling an all-nighter staring at the over 2000 classes that flashed across the computer screen in front of me. While I had narrowed down the few subjects I was interested in taking, my battle with class sign-ups was far from over. I struggled with choosing between different course syllabi and class content. Penn Course Review was consistently open on my browser because that 0.2 margin in course difficulty or professor quality (if such intangibles can even be effectively quantified) could completely change how I felt about a class. I spent hours balancing my intended schedule; complementing straightforward introductory classes with interesting but nefarious higher-level ones. I searched up class size to rank smaller seminars at the top and larger, hence possibly easier to get-into, lectures below. By dawn, I had schematic flowcharts representing the various permutations for my course registration choices (what if I get my first primary choice and my third alternate, but not my second?). I had meticulously crafted out the most foolproof application for modules to ensure that my first semester in college would be as enriching and stimulating and rewarding as possible. The result? I got a total of one class that I had ranked as a primary, and the rest were second-tier choices positioned further down the list. I had assembled what I thought was a great schedule, only to have a computer algorithm undermine the efforts of that caffeine-fueled night.
Over the past few days, I have become increasingly excited about this unexpected timetable, this mish-mash of classes I otherwise might not have seriously considered taking. My issue with this situation is not how I didn’t get into many of my first-choice classes, but instead how I had assumed that having a choice or many choices for that matter, indirectly meant that I possessed control of their outcomes. In actuality, there was something greater (Luck? Fate? A glitch in the computer system?) stitching together the fabric of my first semester academic life.
“You have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.” This is a quote from 9 year old Nemo, a character in the film “Mr. Nobody.” This “eye-popping sci-fi-flavored fantasy” wrestles with themes like the chaos theory and the paradox of choice, with a time-warping narrative of the vastly divergent outcomes that emerge from Nemo’s simple daily decisions. One of my biggest takeaways from the movie, which I ironically watched only after my struggle with course registration, is the idea of the existence of a right choice.
College students these days seem to be obsessed with making “right choices.” More often than not we find ourselves assessing the attractiveness of making a choice based on our knowledge of what seems “practical,” or “responsible,” or “advantageous,” something that usually fits in with society’s cookie-cutter plan for its citizens. “Study hard,” we’re told, “Take extra classes, have a part-time job, build schools during a community trip in a less developed country, it’ll look good on your résumé.” And that’s just high school. In college and after, we attempt to assert our control in formulating a fixed life plan: to declare a particular major, or pursue a certain viable career path, or chase after that large suburban home with 2.1 kids. Making only these kinds of choices, we assume, will shield us from disappointment and despair.
Reality seems palpably cruel. College admission rates see exponential increases in selectivity by the year, and while I may be neither of these, my school, the University of Pennsylvania, turned away over 300 applicants with perfect scores and thousands of valedictorians. Daughter of Amy Chua, a Yale Law Professor and author of the controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld is a rising senior at Harvard University. Weaved in some of her blog posts about university life is a common thread outlining the pressure faced by students at Harvard and even elsewhere at other institutions that is not limited solely to academics: “If you’re not president of three organizations, keynote speaker at a summit on minorities in politics, and co-founding a start-up in your free time, you’re doing it wrong.”
While there is nothing erroneous in partaking in any of the above, I do believe that there is something inherently flawed with the mindset that equates achievement to pride and prestige, hence fearing the lack of such accolades and accomplishments. We assume that more choice means being able to tailor our lives to be much closer to the ideal of success. We should, instead, beware of excessive choice: questioning the decisions we make before even making them, attempting to predict outcomes resulting in unrealistically high expectations, fearing failure.
“Students … spend a lot of time knowing,” comments Singaporean writer, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow and I completely agree. I have always known how to take my grades seriously and excel academically. I have always known how to keep my GPA up and participate in enough extracurricular activities. What scares me now that I’ve gotten into college and there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut path for me to trudge along is this lack of knowing. What classes do I take? Which major to pursue? How am I supposed to “find myself” and what kind of person will I become? “Meanwhile,” Balasingamchow continues, “the world lurches from one eventuality to another, sending the best-laid plans along into a rough-and-tumble spin.” Having an aspiration and ideal image of oneself is perfectly fine, but expecting that our boat of dreams will sail smoothly towards the horizon without any choppy water is naïve.
In a couple of weeks, we may find ourselves learning and living amongst some very brilliant individuals: potential mathematicians who might give Will Hunting a run for his money, a to-be senator or pioneer in a social enterprise, the kind of people who used to worry fellow undergraduate Holly Li and her cheese-puffs. I can only hope that these acts of “brilliance” do not diminish the purity and passion that come with an individual’s authentic interest in these activities; that one’s choice to pursue something is not made based on any quantifiable gain. Sometimes it pays when things don’t go as we had expected, because what we gain from the plans we lose may be equally worthwhile.
There is a Chinese saying, “天外有天，一山还比一山高” (tian wai you tian, yi shan hai bi yi shan gao). In direct translation, it means that there are skies above skies, and mountains beyond mountains. In other words, there will always be someone better, some place better, some thing better than what you know now. How can we claim to make the best choices for ourselves when our knowledge about each situation and its outcomes are limited? College students, take a deep breath a let go of this incessant need to be infallible. There is no such thing as the only way of doing things, or the right choice. There are only the consequences of our decisions and how we deal with them. As proclaimed in Mr. Nobody, “Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning.” I’m so thankful that a botched up class registration process has revealed this much to me.
Cinematic Underdogs & Overcats, (2013). Mr. Nobody: The Paradox of Choice, Chaos Theory and Hidden Knowledge. [online] Available at: http://cervifrank.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/mr-nobody-the-paradox-of-choice-chaos-theory-and-hidden-knowledge/
S-pores.com, (2014). s/pores » Blog Archive » Once Bonded. [online] Available at: http://s-pores.com/2009/07/once-bonded/
Tigersophia.blogspot.sg, (2013). new tiger in town: Do Less, Read More: A Defense of School. [online] Available at: http://tigersophia.blogspot.sg/2013/12/do-less-read-more-defense-of-school.html
Washington Post, (2014). ‘Mr. Nobody’ movie review. [online] Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/mr-nobody-movie-review/2013/10/30/bb919da0-402c-11e3-9c8b-e8deeb3c755b_story.html