August and September are peculiar. During these two brief months, freshmen shape the personas that they’ll embody for at least the rest of the year — if not longer. Come October, we’ll have a new batch of a cappella superstars, a new cadre of aspiring public servants and, of course, this year’s cohort of finance junkies. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty out of the class of 2019, but three words that will be significantly less common after a couple of weeks will be these: “I don’t know.”
Pretty soon, there’ll be a distinct social pressure for freshmen to appear busy — to seem certain of their place around campus. “I don’t know” will no longer be an acceptable response to, “What are you involved with this year?” Come April, it’ll be an unacceptable answer to, “What are you doing this summer?” By the beginning of sophomore year, anyone who hasn’t decided what to major in will answer “What do you want to major in?” with the same sheepish look and nervous chuckle.
We don’t really grow out of that mentality either. Certainly by senior year, most of us will be searching for internships — or more accurately, return offers. Why? Because no senior wants to deal with the “embarrassment” of having no answer to “What are you doing after graduation?” We’re taught to appear poised and self-assured in interviews — not to admit defeat by uttering those three simple words.
As University of Chicago Professor Steven Levitt notes in his popular blog Freakonomics, our fear of “I don’t know” even extends into the workforce, but what’s particularly dangerous is that the questions we’re answering no longer concern just us. According to Levitt, we get “incredibly good…at faking like [we] know the answer when [we] have no idea”— after all, no employee wants to display ignorance in front of his or her boss. It’s a mentality that has led to botched advertising campaigns, product recalls and millions of dollars of lost revenue for companies across the country.
So what’s behind our fear of three otherwise innocuous words? From a young age, we’re taught to fear uncertainty. We’re taught to admire those who have their lives together and to emulate them. Uncertainty is treated as a weakness or vulnerability. While some people make noise about how 18- to 21-year-olds need not have their lives figured out — about how we don’t need to pick a major or vocation immediately — the reality is that most of us try anyway. When was the last time you heard someone unapologetically answer “I don’t know” to a question at a social gathering?
Such an atmosphere is toxic. We’re almost incentivized to feel angry or miserable for not having an answer to every tough question in our lives. We’re pressured into making a decision — any decision, just to avoid the embarrassment of uncertainty. Uncertainty might be a frightening experience, but it’s a necessary precursor to exploration and discovery. The consulting and finance sectors have become hugely popular in part because their application processes are streamlined and early in the academic year. But it prevents students from meaningfully and thoroughly researching their possible postgraduate paths.
Companies know this and capitalize on our fear of uncertainty, of course. Other employers, from tech to Teach For America, have begun copying the finance and consulting recruitment cycles and moving application dates earlier and earlier. I’ve heard of students interviewing for internships that would occur two summers later; the “winternship” that turns into a summer internship is becoming increasingly popular. It’s patently absurd that the pressures to find a job traditionally faced by juniors and seniors are now creeping into the lives of sophomores and freshmen. We’ll do anything to appear put together.
Consider also the very classes we attend here at Yale. How many of us have hesitated to answer a question for fear of a follow-up that reveals our ignorance or makes us look silly? How many of us have sat quietly as professors rambled about topics we simply didn’t understand? The reason we don’t speak up is the same reason we begin searching for next summer’s internship before classes even begin in the fall. We’re afraid of looking unsure of ourselves. We’re afraid of looking stupid.
Let’s reject this culture of faux certainty. It’s perfectly fine not to have an answer every once in a while. To the class of 2019, welcome to Yale; you’ll inevitably be asked some of the very questions I’ve brought up here. Remember that you can say “I don’t have to have an answer” sometimes. Embrace the uncertainty. Question those canned responses. Start some genuine conversations. And raise your hand when the professor doesn’t make any sense.
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at email@example.com .