As I stood in the middle of the Wilson School’s Fountain of Freedom after submitting my senior thesis, I could not help but feel, hidden beneath the watery surface and among the cold stone tiles, a lurking sense of self-doubt.
Was this the best work that I could have turned in? Maybe I should have done more background research. Maybe I should have conducted a more complex statistical test. Maybe I should have had one more friend read over my final draft before I turned it in.
During our four years here at Princeton, the senior thesis has been depicted as the “most valuable academic component of [our] Princeton experience,” the “culmination” of our path to “evolve as independent thinkers.” In essence, we have been told that the senior thesis is the best reflection of our academic selves. I knew I had tried, but it was hard to ignore my gut feeling that, just maybe, I should have tried a little bit harder.
In a similar manner, we have also been told that the rest of our lives will be defined by how we have spent our time here at Princeton. Princeton will follow us. Not only literally through the alumni donation letters that will find our future mailboxes wherever we may go, but also through our future life choices that will be affected by how we have worked, played and interacted in these hallowed halls.
As we are about to turn the final page on this chapter of our lives, I have started to feel the same sense of doubt that I had felt in that fountain almost two months ago. In terms of how I pursued my interests, handled my relationships or chose my career path, could I have done better?
For our senior theses, we eventually receive an answer to that question in the form of a grade. We will know if we did too much or too little. However, there is no grade or progress report that will tell us how well we lived our lives. Even at the end, God will not hand us comprehensive comments outside the Pearly Gates filled with compliments, critiques and room for improvement. Life is not pass/D/fail. We get no answer.
Nonetheless, stubborn and fickle, we try to get one. And in doing so, I fear that we will fall into the trap of the Cinderella shoe. We try to place our foot into a crystal shoe and lament if our foot is not a perfect fit. We take our own backgrounds and see how they match up against those of Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama and that guy who graduated two years ago and now works at McKinsey. If our life story thus far does not fit because we did the wrong summer internship, received the wrong grades or did not get into the right clubs, we feel like failures.
To be brutally honest, I am still so afraid this may be the case. The mature, “adult” side of me wants to write that it is not. It wants to write that I have no regrets about my choices, to write that I will be content regardless of where I end up. Yet, I am truly afraid that I did not take full advantage of my time here. I am afraid of the missed opportunities. I am afraid that my best foot was not put forward. I am afraid that the next steps I am about to take could be better than they are.
They say that hindsight is 20-20, and at times it seems so clear. Yes, we have all made a few clear-cut mistakes along the way, but life is far too complex, too multifaceted for us to be so binary. If I have realized anything, it is that there is no crystal shoe for us to put our foot into — behind the façade, our past is just as blurry as our future.
A few weekends ago, I went home for Mother’s Day. Cleaning out my old room, I found a letter from my fifth-grade self to the future me about where I hoped to be. I hoped for a lot back then. To become a great drawer (nope). To learn how to play the piano (nope). To go to the University of Connecticut (nope). To grow six feet tall (definitely nope).
And in reading this letter, I realized that my prior goals were radically different. Back then, I could never have imagined ending up somewhere like Princeton, let alone having any of the amazing experiences that I have had these past four years, whether it be presenting my Junior Paper at the White House, dancing to Flo Rida live at the 25th Reunion tent or going to Walt Disney World for fall break with friends. It is easy to notice the downsides in the rearview mirror after seeing all the ground that has been covered, but it is much harder to remember the difficulty of getting to where we are now.
We worry, we doubt, we fear so much. And despite all the exerted energy, our efforts will most likely be futile. We will all probably end up somewhere far from where we currently hope. And the prospects of that sound terrifying. Yet what we want later may be far different than what we hope for now. And the chance of achieving what we could not even imagine in the present is extremely exciting, making our possibilities truly limitless.
I wish I could write a letter to my fifth-grade self. If I could, I would let him know that despite all the road bumps, despite all the doubts, despite not achieving even a fraction of what I had hoped for back then, the journey ahead would surpass my wildest expectations. As my mother always used to say, it is the journey, not the destination, which you will appreciate.Benjamin Dinovelli is a Wilson School major from Mystic, Conn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.