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In defense of whim

I gave my adviser an ambitious new schedule for my third semester. Looking at one class that didn’t fit with any of my previous interests, he assured himself, turned and spoke, “At least I know you well enough now to be sure that you didn’t just pick this on an outrageous whim!”

Uh oh. I quickly burst his misguided bubble.

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“It is a whim, I’m afraid. It might even be a little outrageous.”

Whims. They have a fairly awful reputation. Capricious and sudden, unexpected and arbitrary, they are governed by fancy. To be whimsical is perhaps to be amusing, but usually passing, irrational and impulsive, too. Whims are bad.

This is unfair.

The individual forever makes decisions. Wake up, and the game starts. Stay up? Go back to sleep? Throw the alarm clock at a snoring roommate? Throw it out of the window? Shower? Read? Work? Play? Drink? Smoke? Walk? Talk? Act, or not? Sleep? And the cycle will soon repeat.

And all the time, the poor whim is blamed, or misused, or simply cast aside and not engaged at all.

Decision-making covers a large spectrum. One extreme is instinctive. Bodily functions, on the whole, don’t require too much cerebral input. We can just go with the flow. Literally, maybe. This, though, is hardly whimsical. It’s so instinctive that we can hardly help it.

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The other side, then. Maybe there the whim can find its place? Er, no. Here sit the decisions that are not yet decisions at all. Still being argued, thrashed out, dismantled and reformed. They need more information to be reliably made, we say. Yet even when that information is given, we might just immediately begin the search for explanation again. There are so many decisions we don’t know how to make. They are so difficult that often they might never be made at all. Too big to be whimsical. The wicked whim has no place here.

Too irrational and unexplained to belong to either the most instinctive or the most carefully considered decision-making processes, whimsical action floats somewhere in the middle ground. And it is hated.

The word first popped up in 1697. Probably formed from the earlier “whim-wham” or “whimsy,” by 1832 whim had acquired its undeservedly negative connotations. Harriet Martineau, an English sociologist, wrote with conviction, “The scheme was no whim of the moment.” Instead, it was a measured, thoughtful undertaking. It was something respectable. Something successful. We come to college to learn how not to spin off on flights of fancy. We are here to learn how to isolate whim.

This is wrong. Spontaneity will separate the great from the good. Whim should dominate that middle ground. There, it is absolutely critical. Completely necessary. Entirely required. Too often, the two ends of the decision-making spectrum come too close to dominating the whole. Every decision seems either instinctive or just too big to even make. Either we make decisions without thinking, or we close our eyes and wait until they go away. Only judgments like munching down a second dessert at lunch, or buying a book, or watching TV instead of starting that paper are actually resolved by our decision-making process. Our tendency is to categorize everything else as either too difficult, or too obvious to require such input.

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With these categorizations, the whim is redundant. So, we have to give it room to breathe. OK, the instinctive decisions probably can’t be reduced in number. But, the big problems can. How? Simple: We become less afraid of the dastardly whim.

In your course selection, do something you just want to try, even if you don’t know why. When Princeton throws free tickets at you, use them. When the University pays for big names to give big lectures, go listen. When someone invites you to an open house, take up the offer. When you get the opportunity to go abroad, grasp it. If someone thrusts a parachute in your arms and asks you to jump out of a plane, just do it. The acronym is irritating, but you only live once. Eventually, one of those whims will reward you.

In bursting my adviser’s bubble, I was also telling him not to be afraid. My class choice might be a whim. But the whim might be a great thing. Follow Lord Henry’s Wilde advice: ‘The only difference between a caprice and a lifelong passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.” Go for it. Give the whim a chance. It might allow you to make the greatest decision you ever will.

Philip Mooney is a sophomore from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He can be reached at pmooney@princeton.edu.

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