At one point in time, I wanted to be scientist. I was eight and I really, truly knew what I wanted from life. But to my recollection, that was the last time I was truly sure about anything.
At the age of twelve, I had to decide between playing the clarinet or choosing a new instrument to play, and that was a decision I didn’t take lightly. I’m still not sure I made the right decision. But then came the other decisions: which college to attend, which friends to make, what to do for fun.
As the years have gone on, the correlation plot, with number of decisions on the x-axis and amount of uncertainty on the y-axis, has become a rising exponential function.
As a first-year student at Princeton, I knew what I wanted to be; that is, I wanted to be fully secure in my uncertainty. After all, I’d earned it by getting into Princeton. And in the bargain, I’d bought a year of guiltless uncertainty.
Undecided. Proudly proclaimed.
But then freshman year abruptly ended.
Now there was an interest to be paid on the year of guiltless uncertainty. What should I major in? What do I want to be in life? What do I want the people in my life to look like? What do I want to do for the rest of my life until I die? Also, does my life end when I leave Princeton?
(Refer back to paragraph 3 for an accurate depiction of my mental state.)
Uncertainty just isn’t acceptable when you’re a high-performing person (like essentially any Princeton student). Because then, you’re not “making the most” of the “best four years of your life.”
When we leave Princeton, the outside world will require us to maintain maximum performance, right? If we don’t perform, we’ll all get left behind — stuck in, god forbid, non-Morgan Stanley or non-McKinsey jobs.
So now I’m ready to dig into freshman year me. What were you thinking? Why’d you take classes in the most random departments? Why did you think it was okay to be uncertain?
The graph in paragraph 3 needs another dimension: existential dread. Visualize it as merely a straight line rising as a derivative out of my uncertainty.
Then came a year off “to find myself” during which I traveled around the world living in different cities. I started with Chengdu, China, and made my way across the continent to Iasi, Romania, ending finally with London; no decisions to make other than: what will be my next meal? What hostel should I live in? What country should I jet off to next?
Hence, during my time away, it was alright to be uncertain. The stakes of finding food and shelter weren’t nearly so high as the stakes are at Princeton.
During my trip, I met many people. Some in China, some in Romania. They all managed to be wonderful human beings without ever having been Princeton students. It was practically a miracle.
I walked around Bucharest, Romania, with a Turkish lady who was an adamant feminist. I fell into a group of Brazilian travelers at Dracula castle who promised to host me in Rio. I went trekking up the Great Wall with people I had just met a couple of days before.
Similarly, I learned a lot about run-of-the-mill, non-academic life lessons, like how not to crash a scooter bike into a fence in Malaysia and how to order vegetarian food at a Romanian restaurant. But really, nothing too profound; just that I could travel around the world and be alive and enjoy myself away from Princeton.
So, no, my life would not end when I left Princeton.
Ultimately, my travels have taught me that Princeton is a stepping stool. It is not the end-all minting machine that stamps us with a completely certain and immovable identity. It may or may not help us answer some of the questions we have, but by no means is it the end of the journey.
On campus, existential dread can be a natural state, and I certainly struggle with it. But after being away for a year, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I don’t need to. Eventually, our Princeton experience will be done and over with. We can choose whether to spend it in existential dread or whether to just enjoy the rest of our time here and accept that we might always be uncertain even when we leave the orange bubble.
Bhaamati Borkhetaria is a sophomore from Jersey City, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.