In my last column of the year, I want to make a confession: For a while, I wanted to be an Ethics, Politics and Economics major. I know it’s a silly, low-stakes confession, but at the time, this felt cataclysmically important. I salivated at the idea of being able to seem as though I regularly read The Economist. I daydreamed of the idea of saying that I was studying “interdisciplinary urban studies” in job interviews. I wanted to talk about the Hegelian dialectic with some authority. I wanted to be in the cocktail party, so to speak.
Freshman spring, I slogged through “Intro Micro” and “Introduction to Political Philosophy.” I found neither class at all exciting, but shouldered the “prereqs are prereqs” yoke. When it came to picking classes sophomore fall, I found myself frustrated. I kept scrolling through EP&E seminar after EP&E seminar on the Bluebook, wishing I were interested in “Politics and Markets,” or “Debating Globalization.” I was resigned, rather than excited. And I supposed that resignation was just a part of adulthood.
A friend interrupted me as I started my 30th pass over the EP&E course offerings, and asked me a question that has shaped nearly every subsequent decision I’ve ever made: “Do you actually want to take these classes? Or do you want to want to take these classes?”
That defining phrase — “want to want” — suddenly reframed a huge swath of my life choices. I had been so resigned to particular study spots, resigned to certain friendships, resigned to this major. That’s not the way to go through Yale. We got in here because we actually wanted to learn, and we should spend our time pursuing the things that keep us up at night thinking.
This is, in many ways, easier said than done. How do you configure your understanding of your interests to know what is actually enlivening, actually exciting to you? What’s the thing you actually want to know? These are the questions buttressing my studies right now, the questions buttressing all of our time here. And it’s almost impossible to find the answers. How do you know when you only “want to want” to know?
A good heuristic is to determine whether or not you feel as though you are constantly swimming upstream with a topic. This is not the same thing as elbow grease for something you genuinely wish to know. If you really love reading about nationalism, but have to read 400 pages on it by tomorrow, sighing at the hard work is not a negation of your interest. It’s the rare scholar that meets a sleepless night head-on with a smile — that’s not a want-to-want bellwether.
But if you always get to the homework for one class last, then maybe you’re not actually as interested in the topic as you initially thought. Or if you can’t seem to find a time to see that one friend, then maybe stop trying. This applies to clubs, to romantic partners, to food groups! If you can’t make yourself want to do it, then maybe it’s not worth it to swim upstream anymore.
Want to want. It’s the hardest thing to know — a project of a lifetime, really. Yale is a place where we carpet bomb our interests in the beginning, signing up for 30 clubs, shopping 30 classes, having 30 best friends in the first parts of freshman year. There’s a place for that, a time for that. Yet in the second time around, in the reassessment, let’s go more for a sniper’s approach. Do everything once to try, and then a second time to make sure you were right. If we’re checking in with ourselves from the outset, we might make better decisions before we get too embroiled in any one thing.
It’s the EP&E paradigm. If you’d read the entire paper — and the three appendices — then maybe you should take the class. But if you’re getting bogged down in the footnotes and can’t make yourself stay awake to finish the chapter, then maybe put the book down and try a new shelf. You never know.
Amelia Nierenberg is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .