What do you want to do with your life?
A lucky few Princetonians will be able to answer that question with certainty, knowing exactly their vision for their life and how they will make it a reality. Most will have at least a general idea, but may be less certain of the path that leads there. Some will have absolutely no clue.
Princeton is the time to seek an answer to this question, though an answer will not necessarily be found. Even as I graduate, uncertainty lingers. But I believe that uncertainty should not inspire fear or anxiety, but rather, excitement at the endless possibilities the unknown future presents. Creating a plan requires careful thought about why we desire something, and whether it is worth the sacrifice. Importantly, if we cannot answer either of those questions, we must be willing to step back from pre-laid plans, and embrace the uncertainty of an open mind.
I came into Princeton certain that I knew exactly what I wanted to do: become a physician-scientist. I had a 10-year plan. I would study hard, apply directly to an MD/PhD program, and after residency and research I would have a prestigious, well-paying job for the rest of my life. But to my growing dismay, with every semester that I passed I felt more and more like I hadn’t fully thought through my plans and desires.
As a peer academic adviser, I’ve had many conversations about the academic choices that Princeton students must face, ranging from what courses to take to what major to declare. I remember one conversation in particular. We were talking about choosing a major, and I asked my zee which departments interested him. When he rattled off a list of majors, I pressed him to explain why those interested him in particular.
“Well, I think I’m good at it,” he said. “Do you enjoy the course content?" I responded. “Not particularly, but I still did well in the class." “Does one of those topics interest you more than the other?" “To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that.”
I recognize that often, doing things that are worthwhile or truly attaining mastery of some skill requires plain, hard work. I am not arguing that we give up when something is difficult or boring, but that we take the time to ensure that our motives are deep and genuine.
This kind of reflection is daunting because its consequences can be scary: I can no longer ignore a growing sense of unease if I conclude that I don’t like what I’m doing. Sometimes, it’s easier to have a flawed plan than no plan at all. Uncertainty can be terrifying. It is exacerbated by the sensation that we are in a race, and that we must keep up or risk getting left behind. So we run, aimlessly, without ever really thinking about where we want to go.
We feel like our youth is the peak of our lives, the productive and creative years in which we must achieve great things or fade into mediocrity. This desperate need to achieve is bolstered by everything around us. We follow lists like Forbes’ "30 Under 30," which explicitly rewards people who have accomplished things in their youth, and we admire the college dropouts (like Mark Zuckerberg) who become CEOs of tech companies in their tender twenties.
But this desperate race is based on a fallacy. Success does not have to come in our youth. In fact, the average inventor applies for a patent at age 47, with the most valuable patents being filed by inventors over the age of 55. The average age at which physics Nobel Laureates make their discoveries is 50, and this “peak [age] of creativity” is getting higher every year. Neil Armstrong was almost 40 when he first walked on the moon. Trying to plan out our success at too young an age might even make it harder to achieve. As Angus Deaton, Princeton’s very own 2015 Nobel Laureate said, “if you overplan at the beginning and decide exactly where you’re going to be, you’re going to sell yourself short.” So, it’s not just that we have all the time in the world, we’d also benefit from using it!
When we’re unburdened by the need for immediate success, uncertainty in our plans can be liberating. Suddenly, we have a million different possible futures. We can dream up the adventures that lie in our futures, and that is exciting. You might surprise yourself with the things that you’re good or bad at, things that you love or hate. But you won't learn what those things are unless you explore outside of your comfort zone. The place outside your comfort is a place of uncertainty, but it can also be a place of untapped potential and endless opportunity.
In the midst of this uncertainty, I’ve taken time to think of what I really want to do, at least as a first step. I’ve uncovered a hidden passion for social entrepreneurship, global health and development. This place was secure and familiar, and future apart, with all its uncertainty, scares me. There are a million different pathways sprawling before me, any of which could lead to my dream job - or disappointing failure. My future is no longer as clear as it was with my MOL to PhD track.
But I am so much more excited to discover where it will take me, for every ending leads into another new beginning. What appears as uncertainty is really untapped potential and endless opportunity.
Janelle Tam is a molecular biology major from Waterloo, Canada. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.