Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Reflections on the pressure to find your passion
In just a few weeks, I’ll be heading home for the summer. I’ll catch my friends up on my first year at Dartmouth, and they’ll tell me about their experiences at their own schools. We’ll drive around with the windows down and spend evenings eating dinner outside and walking to get ice cream. I’ll bike to the beach to work as a lifeguard, I’ll see my dogs and my parents every day, and I’ll make meals in my own kitchen.
That’s what the summer after your freshman year of college is for, right? It’s one last taste of the childhood that will soon completely disappear. One last chance to feel like home really is home. I know that this is what I believe. And yet, sometimes, I still catch myself worrying that it’s the wrong thing to be doing.
Growing up, I was always insecure about the fact that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I never was someone who had a “thing.” I went through phases of near-obsession with all manner of subjects and activities, but that’s all they were: phases. Try as I might, I couldn’t seem to make any one thing stick. Sure, I liked English. I also liked math. And physics. And history. And economics — you get the point. I truly had no idea where I thought I’d be in ten years. At times, this fact was a source of intense panic, but every time I had a brief crisis about it, I inevitably circled back around to the idea that it would figure itself out.
That was the headspace I was in when I arrived at Dartmouth in early September. I was at a school renowned for its comprehensive liberal arts curriculum, and I was told over and over that I had the freedom and time to explore a multitude of subjects. It seemed like just the place for someone like me.
Soon, however, I began to notice that many of my peers had something they seemed to be deeply dedicated to. Seeing how engrossed they were in their passions, how driven they were to achieve their long-term goals, should have inspired me.
Instead, I spiraled into an identity crisis worse than any I’d had before. I began to worry that the whole well-rounded thing really wasn’t going to cut it. It was fine in high school, but college was the place where I was supposed to be figuring out what I was doing with the rest of my life. Why couldn’t I find anything I loved to do? And did that mean I was wasting the opportunity I had been given?
My experience in almost every class I took could be described in nearly the same way: They were all relatively interesting, but not a single one struck me. I never had that moment I had always heard about, the one where you take a random class on a whim and it drastically changes your life — or worldview, or future plans, or so on. I kept expecting that the next class I took, and then the next, and then the next would be The One — but I had no luck.
My admittedly unrealistic expectations caused this problem to compound on itself. As soon as I realized I didn’t love a class, that I hadn’t found my “thing,” I’d begin to shut my brain off from that course. I paid attention in class and did the work, but I was simply going through the motions for a grade. Attending classes became a chore, because I had convinced myself that it was pointless to learn about things that didn’t excite me deeply. I got less out of my classes and enjoyed them less than I could’ve if I had just tweaked my expectations.
The same was true for extracurricular activities, maybe even to a greater extent. I was reluctant to even attempt to get involved with anything because nothing quite struck me as the perfect thing to be my “thing.” I tended to take on an all-or-nothing mindset, which stunted my ability to try anything new. I began to believe that I didn’t actually like anything enough to be involved in it. People around me were so passionate about their extracurriculars, and I was only marginally involved in a couple of activities — largely so I could tell myself and others that, yes, I was taking advantage of the opportunities I had.
About a month ago, I began to express these feelings to my friends, and thankfully, I received a reality check. I had somehow managed to create a world in my head wherein I was the only one who was lost. In reality, plenty of my peers were also feeling unsure of themselves, their interests and their futures. Almost no one was as certain of their passions as they made themselves out to be. The expectations that I had created for myself were not only unrealistic, but also had caused me to put a paralyzing amount of pressure on myself to find something perfect. Ironically, being so concerned about finding my passion had made me less engaged with and passionate about the classes and activities I was already taking part in.
I am doing my best to bring this perspective home with me for the summer. I’m trying to feel more comfortable with my unsureness — that is to say, I am no longer afraid of it. I am determined to get as much enjoyment as possible out of what may be my last summer at home.
However, in recent weeks, campus has been abuzz with students talking about their plans during the break from school. When I hear about people’s impressive summer internships, I worry that my summer plans seem childish and directionless. My grip on my newfound wisdom falters, but I hold onto it tightly. I won’t waste this summer worrying about what other people are doing, what else I could be doing or what else I should be doing. I am intent on being content.