This is a week of decisions. Maybe I find shopping period difficult because Directed Studies deprived me of practice last year, or maybe that’s part of why I found DS so appealing. I’m afraid of making decisions, and I’m inclined to suspect this is not an uncommon problem among Yalies. To get here, a lot of things must have turned out well for us throughout our lives. We’re still not always so good at losing.
Throughout the early years of life, I was conditioned to expect things to go my way. I understood that I often wouldn’t get what I wanted, but when anything was put in my hands, it tended to work out. I could talk my way into classes I wanted to take. Tests and performances went well. Even my Little League team, despite being named after the Washington Senators, had a winning percentage usually hovering around .800.
When I did lose, it was in areas I didn’t care about, or I took pride in losing because it demonstrated my priorities. I seemed to lose everything left to chance — but that was beyond my control. When my middle school’s basketball team lost every game save one, it was because the school valued academics and arts over athletics.
It got to the point where, if things weren’t looking good, I assured myself that something would change because, miraculously, I seemed to have this habit of winning. But this strange string of victories made me immune to fear of defeat, so my actions seemed to bear less importance.
I wasted a few hours over break reading Wendy Mogel’s “The Blessings of a B-.” Mogel argues for a sort of laissez-faire form of parenting; if you let your child fail, she says, he’ll learn how to succeed in the future. The book is disturbing in its view of teenagers as members of a debased foreign species, but it makes a fair point about the value of failure.
Failure teaches people that they are responsible for the outcomes of their actions, masters of their own fates. Had I not grown to expect success, I might have realized that every decision I make really does matter, and I might have relished moments of choice as opportunities to take my future in my own hands.
Instead, I fell into a habit of not understanding the impact of my decisions. Choosing where to go to college was very difficult, in part because I could not impress upon myself that this was real, that my choice would actually determine what would happen for the next four years and the rest of my life. I kept expecting that, whatever I chose, it would be okay, so I couldn’t settle on a decision. Often, I realize only after ordering food from a restaurant that my pronouncement of “Chicken, please” will result in the arrival of a delicious dead clucking animal on my plate, when maybe I really wanted a dead mooing one. With a tangible result impending, I immediately regret my decision.
The extensive menu of classes at Yale would seem to make it impossible to go wrong. But once I realize that classes are more than just two sentences in the blue book, the decision becomes less pleasant. First, there’s the question of what to shop. Here, the lack of urgency in the decision can be problematic. I should probably choose a major at some point soon, so I might want to take classes that could inform that decision — but that political science seminar looks so great! So, although I’m no political science major, maybe it’s okay to take it.
Then comes the disillusionment when I realize there are at least a hundred people trying to get into that seminar. But that’s the beauty of shopping period: everyone is bound to meet rejection somewhere.
Shopping period is a mad rush, and no planning or calculation is ever good enough. But the insanity of this week can teach us to fail in a very safe setting, and, in turn, to plan for those failures. Maybe an obstacle is a good thing. Our impossible ambitions must give way somewhere.
And then, once we learn that there’s no hope of taking every class we want, ambition reemerges, this time more meaningful, stronger, more tested. You might reach for everything because you expect to grasp it, but it may be more ambitious to reach for slightly less because you know it’s only just beyond the stretch of your hand. With the recognition that you will fail in some places, it becomes easier to make a real, consequential decision about which things you really want, where you want to succeed. Learn what you really love, and use this more concentrated and grounded ambition to make decisions rather than to diminish them. Then shop those classes, and, if you still fail, so be it; try again. You can’t always get what you want.
Julia Fisher is a sophomore in Berkeley College.