From my bedroom window as a child I looked upon a field that had no end. So many nights I would stare into the darkness and let my mind drift away to thoughts about the future and growing up. I’d think about my parents, good people happily stuck in the cycle of the midwestern middle class. Work, weekend, work, weekend. My mom wanted me to be a doctor and open a practice with her. Would that be my future? I had no idea, but I figured by the time I was 25 I would have it all figured out. I’d be married, have two kids, and use my weekends to paint a white picket fence and teach my boy to fish. So, for lack of originality, I started down the medical path. I declared a pre-med biology major, worked part time as a pharmacy technician and devoted my days and nights to studying.

But Doctor Hawke was never in the stars. Having joined the reserves at 17, I was activated for military duty after 9/11. I was suddenly kicked from the medical path and thrust into finding my own way. Today I’m 28 and still wondering what I’m going to be when I grow up. I’m not married, only have a part-time job, and have studied everything from immigration and history to strategy and international relations. Some have called my long and winding path foolish and say I’m wasting my life. But I think I’m okay with that.

My friends, a mix of doctors, lawyers, and corporate suits, all rush to work their 60 to 80 hour weeks, many loathing their jobs. I don’t have that problem. I’m reading Confucius, learning Chinese and loving every second. Maybe someday I’ll use this education practically, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is, across this journey, I was able to come to terms with what life means to me. While friends my age did internships and went to law school, all for lack of a better thing to do, I meandered the mountains of Europe and South America, chased bad guys through New York and Iraq, and rode my motorcycle across America. I got lost in thunderstorms, spent lonely nights in strange cities and found pieces of myself in foreign lands — all on the road to get here, back to school. At Yale, people walk forward with unwavering determination. Many are quick to establish themselves, as though it’s in this brief shining moment they’ll make their name, define “the rest of their life” and prepare for the white picket fence (or penthouse). Maybe it’s genuine. Or maybe it’s just a façade to give themselves and others fleeting confidence in the life they’re planning.

If the latter, it’s okay to slow down. Studying, internships and the goals imposed by society may result in a nice corner office; but more important is to know you really want the corner office. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.” In these exciting, overwhelming collegiate years, it’s hard not to foster hidden insecurities. There’s so much uncertainty, so much anxiety, so much pressure. But before you slap a permanent label on yourself, take the time to get out of the library. Meander. Put learning to practice and explore yourself in other ways. Play a sport. Learn an instrument. Travel, interact and grow. Don’t protect the transcript. Endeavor for an education. Overcome the dreams of your parents, the desires of your elders. Perhaps through introspection you’ll find a path you never knew you wanted, a way through the world all your own. Life doesn’t have to be a race or competition; and in the end there are no real winners. In no particular order, we will all reach the finish line.

In the words of Thoreau, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.” So whatever dreams you pursue, ensure they’re your own. If that means an internship with Bain, good on you. If a cross-country road trip with your closest friends is the ticket, excellent. Whatever you do, do it for you. With heart and mind in unison, the world will open up before you. And whatever life may be, it is yours and yours alone.

Alex Hawke is a sophomore in Berkeley College and Eli Whitney student.