Kosslyn: Pre-post-Yale anxiety reframed

If you’re a senior, the following question is probably driving you crazy: “What do you want to do?” Six little words, so innocuous individually, that combined make your stomach churn. There’s no real map for your future ­—no “work here five years”; no “live there after graduation”; no “then have your first child.” The map of the future is covered with scrawl: “Here be dragons.” At least, that’s how it feels.

Our anxiety arises from many sources — student loans to pay off, parental expectations, social pressure to acquire Monopoly money — but compounding it all is a deep loss of control. At Yale, we wield considerable control over the structures of our lives: the courses we take, the activities we engage in and the people we live with are all generally choices left up to us. But senior year is different. We kneel at the altars of higher powers: grad school admissions, corporate America and fellowship committees. To face senior year is to face our mortality: We lack control over what tomorrow holds for us.

Yet our anxiety is not inevitable. We can reframe how we think about our future — instead of “What do I want to do?” a better question is often, “Who do I want to be?” That is, “What effect will I have on the world?”; “What values should my life embody?”; “What do I want on my gravestone?” By taking the long, deep-thinking view, we regain some control over our lives. Nobody can tell us who we want to be other besides ourselves, and nobody can prove our answer wrong. Deep self-knowledge is inviolate, invaluable, invincible.

You may well say: “Justin, I can mull over who I want to be all day long, but how will that help me navigate senior year? Your advice is as non-illuminating as used fireworks!”

Perhaps I can convince you otherwise. Aside from regaining a psychological sense of control, “Who do I want to be?” reframes our predicament. Post-college possibilities can be evaluated in terms of what kind of person they’ll turn us into. After all, how we think from 9-to-5 affects how we think of ourselves in five to ten; what we care about at work seeps into us. As a Wall Street-working friend told me recently, “All my colleagues talk about is money. As hard as I try to avoid focusing on money outside of work, I’m worried that I’m becoming a tool.” So he’s off to grad school to orient his life around abstract math, which he finds intrinsically valuable. And he’s happier for it.

Thinking about who we want to be also cuts through some of the senior-year inertia. It’s frighteningly easy to drift into consulting or government or teaching gigs: Organizations come to campus, smile at us at career fairs, encourage us to apply and, before we know it, we’re at our 40th reunion wondering whether we’re really happy. By reminding ourselves of who we want to be, we can avoid Ivy League inertia and hone in on the jobs that align with our actual goals. For some, this may indeed be consulting, but for others it could be working for the Sierra Club, establishing microfinance in Latin America or raising the profile of a Good Government watchdog. We can find — or create — great jobs if we seek them out; the hard part is knowing what to look for.

That leaves the biggest challenge: learning who we really want to be and what basic goals we want to orient our lives around. There are many possibilities: caregiving, conquering, serving a worthy cause, discovering new knowledge, peace-making, building institutions, kicking asses and taking names, or something entirely different.

So ask yourself: What are you proudest of? Take a quiet moment. Breathe in and out. Notice that the air is cold when you inhale; warm when you exhale. Let the cold air make you feel strong; let the warm air relax you. What are you proudest of? What would you like the answer to be 20 years from now? And what might you do to step in the right direction?

Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at justin.kosslyn@yale.edu.

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