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Op Eds

A Year of Uncertainty

By Michelle I. Gao
Michelle I. Gao ’21, an Associate Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator living in Adams House.

I kept getting on my roommate’s case this fall for not breaking up with her boyfriend, but I’ve become just as much of a broken record. All my roommates are tired of hearing me hash out the same points over and over on whether I should take another gap semester, somehow thinking a new resolution will emerge from the same set of incomplete information.

Uncertainty and indecision have characterized 2020. I always just went along with college, expecting to take 32 classes, live in a dorm for eight semesters, graduate in four years. And I would have been perfectly satisfied with that trajectory. But the pandemic shook the foundations of the status quo.

To avoid indecision, we often go with the default option. As behavioral economists have discovered, setting defaults are an effective way to nudge people towards making a certain decision. That’s why there’s so much discussion, for example, over whether our privacy settings should be defaulted to opt-in or opt-out.

I suspect, incidentally, that the fear of uncertainty is a big motivation for Harvard students flocking toward finance and consulting — even bigger than the desire for wealth, the usual culprit cited. Those industries have become our default options. It’s not about coveting what’s above so much as being scared of what’s below. For Harvard students there’s a lot of below. Or at least we’re worried there’s a lot of below. And along with fear comes the desire for stability — which these careers promise, from the very recruiting process that takes place on campus. We want to be excellent, and it’s in our reach, but it’d be easier if someone else could just tell us what to strive to be excellent in.

I myself felt this pressure especially when the pandemic first hit. I thought the pandemic ruined all my plans, but then I realized: I had no plans.

Friends were locking down their trajectories — accepting return offers in finance and tech, applying to graduate school and fellowships. No option called out to me in that way though. If I too feared the unknown, I also didn’t think that no knowns seemed much worse. Via summer internships and college extracurriculars I’ve explored three or four industries, but that’s very few in the set of plausible futures. Yes, indecision is a recurring theme here, but it’s not irrational to see it as an optimization problem. This summer I really liked the company I was working at and the work I was doing, but couldn’t I like other companies and other paths too?

So the pandemic gave me time. Time to experience the events of this fall in a virtual newsroom. Time to take another summer internship, possibly to try something else. And hopefully time to be more intentional about my senior year, whenever it starts. For all Harvard offers, and all that I am eager to return to, it may not have been the best place for me to resolve those questions, especially in its current reduced form.

Indecision, of course, can be a privilege. It was mine this year, given that one of my biggest crises revolved around a voluntary decision over whether to attend college and push off a graduation date. With the security that nothing too bad can happen, I genuinely have the freedom to grapple with the uncertainty.

In some ways I appreciate the state of not knowing — or rather, of finding out. That was my job this year, to learn more through reporting stories. You always make progress, adding a drop to the bucket of total knowledge in the world, both for yourself and hopefully for others. But there’s never an end. Nor do I want one. Certainty can be something to strive for but not something to obtain, as 2020 keeps reminding us.

Michelle I. Gao ’21, an Associate Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Government concentrator living in Adams House.

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