The class of 2021 — neophytes who might not have had the misfortune of gray-haired adults badgering them about their future plans at a dinner party — should consider themselves lucky. If it hasn’t happened yet, it soon will, and, if the News’ recent survey is to be believed, the 87 percent of them who seem to be unsure about what they’d like to do after graduation had better get an answer ready (“Class of 2021 by the numbers: Looking ahead,” Aug. 31, 2017).
They all will, of course. Some will claim to have found their callings as lawyers or doctors. Others will dedicate themselves to public service or the arts. But if they’re anything like the classes that have come before them — and they are — nearly a third of them will end up in management consulting or finance. Why? If one precocious first year I overheard the other day is to be believed, it’s so that they can “keep their options open.”
The urge to keep metaphorical doors open years from now undergirds decisions ranging from our college majors to our extracurriculars. This mindset is as ridiculous as it is widespread. University President Peter Salovey even lauded flexible “foxes” over dogged “hedgehogs” in his first-year address. But college should be about closing doors, not keeping them open.
I get the urge to keep options open; figuring out what to do with the rest of our lives is a tough problem. It’s likely that the simultaneous pressure to be “successful” and the huge number of resources to get there give us choice paralysis.
It’s much easier to defer a decision for a few years and build generic credentials along the way. This is why the job search for so many Yalies boils down to a simple optimization problem: What’s the least specialized job that we can do in the field of our choice? It’s effectively a hedge: If we’re wrong, we want to switch fields quickly.
But research warns against the dangers of hedging. In a 2002 study, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert found that we are less satisfied when we make reversible decisions as opposed to irreversible ones. He speculated that, in large part, we second guess ourselves when we have the option to switch.
Worse, subsequent research suggested that our performance and efficiency take a hit too. Obviously, this doesn’t suggest that anyone vaguely interested in being a physician should dive into medical school with reckless abandon, but it does mean that imbuing our decisions with some sense of finality can make us happier and more productive.
What this means at Yale is that, if you’re seriously considering a career in a field, it’s probably worth diving deeply from the beginning. Think you want to be an engineer? Don’t mindlessly take prerequisite courses for all engineering disciplines; take a survey course and then focus on one engineering sub-field that you think you most enjoy. If you dislike it, you’ll find out quickly.
Yes, doing so may make it harder to major in other fields. That’s okay. The value of figuring out what you don’t want to do is underrated. Besides, it’s highly unlikely you’ll specialize so much that you’re not hireable in multiple industries (and if you do, you probably know what you want to do anyway). If the only reason you spend a summer in management consulting is to keep options open, you’re not thinking hard enough.
The college experience is often framed as a chance to try as many new experiences as possible, as though some art history class you took on a whim will change your life. Chances are, it won’t. There is indeed value in new experiences, but that value comes from figuring out what we don’t enjoy. While it may be the case that some students would, in fact, benefit from exploring additional options, I suspect many who haven’t been able to cull down their list of interests to a few specific ideas simply haven’t gone through the deep introspection necessary to figure out what their values and goals are. This process is by nature uncomfortable, so, instead of grappling with them, we put our goals on auto-pilot and make half-baked decisions that let us back out or switch to the next career path.
Writers have spilled no shortage of ink telling college students it’s okay to not know what to do with our lives. But the important question is this: What are we going to do about it? The only way to find out is to step through some doors — and shut others behind us.
Shreyas Tirumala is a senior in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .