On the first day of classes at the Yale School of Management, we went around the room and shared our greatest life experiences in an icebreaker exercise. Many of the students my age talked about traveling or personal accomplishments. The older students — both men and women — were nearly unanimous in their responses: Either “The day I got married” or “The day I became a parent.”
The younger students gasped.
In retrospect, before arriving at Yale, there had been times when I earnestly thought about one day being married and having a family. But almost immediately after setting foot on campus, the pull of extracurriculars, academics and social life quickly superseded that once romantic yearning. We think that these components are critical to a complete college experience, maybe even achieving the good life after graduation. At the very least, our hectic schedules are what got us into Yale in the first place, and it’s what we see everyone around us pursuing. So we follow the paths of those in the years above us, failing to realize that these upperclassmen were once following the very same model of those before them.
But repeatedly, when I ask older professionals what makes them most happy, they tell me time and again: It’s not just work, but family and relationships.
In a letter to his daughters, President Obama, arguably the most powerful person on the planet, wrote, “When I was a young man, I thought life was all about me … But then the two of you came into my world … And suddenly, all my big plans for myself didn’t seem so important anymore.”
It’s beautiful. But the sentiment can still feel foreign to me.
Yale, as a liberal arts institution, commits itself “to liberate and free the mind to its fullest potential.” Its education is designed to prepare us for all areas of life. Frequently, our personal lives are left out of this conversation. There are so many Master’s Teas centered around famous alumni who have risen to the top of their fields, but so few Master’s Teas giving us simple guidance on how to have balanced relationships.
Even though I haven’t yet met anyone who doesn’t want to eventually find a dependable and intimate relationship, I’m confused by the contrast between our ambitions for our professional lives and our ambitions for our personal lives — in which success is just as far from guaranteed.
At Yale, we expect the best, though we’re never sure when or in what form the best ever manifests itself. Despite the idea that there is always something better around the corner, I have come to accept that I am most relieved when I just give something a chance and commit to it. I learned to appreciate my activities and academics not for surface-level checklist traits that I thought they had to have, but for the comfortableness and deeper understanding that came from making such fields uniquely my own through sustained effort. And even when it doesn’t work out, as is sometimes the case, life goes on and there is something to have learned from the experience.
Maybe these lessons should be applied to my dating life.
I irrationally trust that work can’t hurt me in a way that love could, and so work has become the one exercise through which I’ve known how to navigate my life. Work, work and more work. It gets me up in the morning. It gives me satisfaction when I go to bed. Deep down, I doubt whether this single-mindedness to work is sustainable or simply an anesthetic from a greater truth.
When I am home on breaks and away from work, I’ll observe my parents and I think about the kind of life I want to live when I am their age. They both have successful professional lives, yet their careers remain far from the center of their life at home. They cook, do the dishes and go on walks together. We eat dinner as a family every night. It’s not exactly a passionate Hollywood story — it’s far from the hook-ups and flings I’ll hear about on campus. In fact, it’s quite ordinary, but I catch myself thinking that maybe I wasn’t so ridiculous in my youth for wanting a happy family life.
And after each break, I return to school and keep these desires to myself. At Yale, such aspirations seem stigmatized and even at times politically incorrect. As the semester progresses, I’ll get busy again — work takes over — and I forget this feeling until the next time I talk to an adult, forgetting the day I’ll become that adult.
Johnathan Yao is a 2015 graduate of Jonathan Edwards College and will graduate from the School of Public Health in 2016. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .