It used to be just the little things. Pressing my eight-year-old nose to the cold glass at the ice cream parlor, I would debate the merits of mint chocolate chip versus strawberry as my siblings effortlessly rattled off their orders. When the smiling eyes of the scooper fell on me, I would hurriedly deliver my decision—wondering even as I ordered whether the instant I tasted my choice I would suddenly yearn for a fruitier flavor.
But I had to choose. “Mint chocolate chip,” I would say, my voice barely above a whisper.
“Sure hun, you want sprinkles with that?”
The agonies of an eight-year-old.
While I’d like to claim that I’ve come a long way since then, anyone who has accompanied me on a trip to Herrell’s or Toscanini’s or Baskin Robbins—normally the place of their choosing—can tell you that’s not quite so. But I’ve adopted new methods to defuse the pressure of deciding. I ask to sample flavors, I consult my apathetic friends, and, most of the time, I end up choosing two flavors, but only one scoop, please. (Calorie-counting is another tool I’ve added to my ever-more-complex arsenal of assessment over the years.)
But as my selection skills have become savvier, the decisions have become more complicated.
I agonized the entire month of April in my senior year of high school about where to go to college. Faced with four equally appealing choices, I settled on Harvard the day responses were due. But as I drove to school that day, I remained unwilling to finalize a four-year future in Cambridge. My mind played out and dissected my options so many times that when I finally pulled into a parking spot, I immediately decided to turn around and drive back home to cry to my parents. Why was I crying? I had four of the world’s most outstanding institutions at my fingertips. This was a good thing.
Such a good thing that I didn’t want to let it go. It wasn’t a fear of Harvard that was holding me back, but an unwillingness to give up my options elsewhere. Deciding among the four prongs of my future suddenly seemed less romantic than Frost’s classic fork in the road.
I shivered from my momentary brain freeze. I had to decide.
So I trudged forward and stumbled onto this path of brick and ivy and erudition, which looked so similar to the other roads before me—but, thankfully, led me clear of New Haven.
And now the path continues to fork and also to twist and climb.
I’ve become more adept with the little things. I no longer consult my roommates to see if I should go on a run or play tennis, but choices of more consequence, like finding an academic focus, still prove to be challenges.
I’ve always been interested in a wide range of intellectual pursuits. Math and science have the same appeal for me as do English, history, or even economics, so as the freshman deadline to declare a concentration loomed, I decided not to decide. My brilliant plan was to scribble something on my study card but continue to explore in the hopes of finding the kind of academic passion that professors were always alluding to.
Things seemed to be going well in my stalling operation when I fortuitously ran into the chemistry advisor in the Science Center on the day study cards were due.
“I want to be a chem concentrator,” I told him, and he happily signed my card.
But after two years of stalling, I find myself stuck.
I’m not unhappy with science, but as I swallow daily doses of electrons and orbitals and arrow-pushing, I try to fill my schedule with Shakespeare and Sophocles and even Spielberg for a little balance. At this point, I’ve taken more mediocre “exploratory” classes than I’d care to count, and I still haven’t found the path to my passion.
Bigger decisions loom on the horizon; life beyond graduation, continuing education, and careers. The options are endless, and there are quite a few directions I’d like to sample. So this winter, I decided to try something new. I forgot about the sweet mystique of the road less traveled and pursued a path well-trod by my classmates: e-recruiting.
Lucky me. After distilling the finer accomplishments of my recent years into a series of bland bullet points, I eagerly awaited the response of many a glorified firm.
In just a matter of minutes, about as long as it takes to upload a series of cover letters on the OCS website, I quickly discovered the flip side to my eight-year-old conundrum.
As I struggled to get a foot in the door—forget about getting it wet—I was unnerved by a most uncomfortable predicament. No longer was I smothered with cloying choices. Instead, I watched in frustration as elite employers made decisions for me. No thank you, they said. We’re sorry. No sprinkles. No cherries. Nothing.
I felt whipped, creamed, by a process that denied me what I’ve always dreaded doing: deciding.
So I’ve learned not to default on choice. Looking back on the landscape of my past, I can smile at the sometimes-senseless rationale that stalled me in my tracks. I’ve chosen torturous paths and had to retrace my steps, but never have I fully frozen. I am now warming to the idea that choice is a privilege. It may be a rocky road, but I’m ready to dig in.
Wendy D. Widman ’06, a chemistry concentrator in Mather House, couldn’t decide whether or not to write this endpaper, so we just forced her.