With turkey under our belts and “Santa Baby” blaring in department stores, it’s official: The holiday season has begun. For us Yalies, December begins with the crunch period of reading week (aka term paper week) and finals and ends with the arguably more stressful time of Christmas vacation. While I love going home at the end of the semester to spend time with my nuclear family and catch up with close friends, the problem is, well, everyone else.
The holidays are the season of the two-minute conversation in which our distant relatives and friends ask us the classic triad of questions: 1) How are you? 2) What are you studying? 3) What do you plan to do with your life?
There are several striking and distressing features of this holy trinity of cocktail-party banter. First, the questions progress from downright mundane to life-defining faster than I can accelerate my 1984 Volvo station wagon. Second, it is usually the case that the questioner — who ranges from your boyfriend’s grandmother, to your high school friend’s mother, to some kid who was in your 10th-grade gym class and whose name has momentarily slipped your mind — does not actually care about the answer to any of these questions. Finally, and most frighteningly, what if you don’t know how to answer the third question?
Last year, I was forced to tell my grandparents, my boyfriend’s grandparents, his aunts and uncles, my high school friends, and my high school acquaintances that I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated. I mumbled something about law school or maybe business school and, in more poetic moments, shared that my interests “lie at the intersection of law, business and government.”
After nearly a month of answering questions about my plans, I had been the closest I’ve ever come to an existential crisis. What was I going to do with my future? At Yale I had been encouraged to take a diverse liberal arts curriculum, to broaden my mind and to leave my options open. Now, due to the prodding of a hodgepodge of distant relatives and friends, I was forced to think seriously about my plans. Humiliated to have seemed unprepared for the first time in my life, I jumped into action. I began researching business school and law school, and I looked at the potential careers I could pursue after each. After coming to the somewhat hasty conclusion that I prefer words over numbers, I chose law.
Looking back, I am startled that it was the people who knew me least who indirectly encouraged me to answer the question: What am I going to do with my life? It was not my parents, my boyfriend, my close friends or my Yale professors who drove me to decide to go to law school; it was my boyfriend’s Uncle John and my high school buddy Reid. The people closest to me have never sat me down and asked me, point-blank, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”
It strikes me as a bit twisted that I made one of my biggest life decisions thus far based on pent-up frustration with holiday cocktail party conversation — that it was the people who know me least who forced me to define myself. But maybe, it doesn’t really matter where the impetus for my soul-searching came from. At some point we students, and especially seniors, will all be forced to a decision point, and perhaps this process is bound to happen in unlikely and seemingly random ways. One of us will be surprised when, at the last minute, he is offered a Fulbright to study the tribes of medieval Europe. Another of us will impulsively decide that she should defer admission to graduate school and join Teach for America in southern Texas. Still another will fall in love this spring and decide that he is willing to follow her to medical school at the University of Minnesota; perhaps they will marry.
Even for those of us who currently have a plan for what we’re doing next year, the future is, at best, a probability. And that is the beauty of it. As we leave Yale, we should continue to follow the advice of our professors and keep our eyes and options open. It is more frightening to graduate college with a year-by-year program that takes us from age 22 to death than it is to leave with no plan at all. We should not be forced to define ourselves too early.
But for now, at the very least, I am armed for the holiday season. When asked about my future plans, I can tell my temporary in-laws and my old choir comrades a list of six law schools that I applied to. The wily ones will then follow up with, “What kind of law are you planning to study?” Instead of telling them that this is a ridiculous question and that no matter where I go my first-year curriculum will consist of contracts, torts, legal research and writing, I will simply tell them I am interested in either intellectual property or entertainment law. Why? Because it’s an answer.
Emily Fenner is a senior in Timothy Dwight College and a former Copy Editor for the News. Her column will appear on alternate Fridays.