I have nothing against a well-blazed trail.
I love hiking, the serenity of surrendering myself to an itinerary, soaking in my own sliver of linear wilderness. Without a trail, I’m not sure if I would still say this. Because to deviate from the beaten path would be to lose myself in some dangerous woods. And that’s not much fun.
We Yalies like trails for the same reason. Many of us, like hikers, are enthusiastic path followers — academic mountaineers who map routes, start marching and trek on until we’ve reached our summit. We appreciate how different structures built into the Yale experience — like majors and extracurricular hierarchies — shed light on our uncertain futures and seem to help us view the forest through the trees.
Trajectories of any sort relieve us of the constant burden of having to choose where to go. They give us a sense of purpose and direction. On the trail there is only forward and back. We can see where we’ve been and be reassured of where we’re going. To be lost, academically or otherwise, is also uncomfortable, just as it is for the hiker.
That’s why many Yalies follow the hiker’s golden rule: Don’t wander from the trail. Never bushwhack.
In accord, we Yalies spend a lot of time convincing each other and ourselves — in conversations about “interests,” in deciding our majors and in navigating our future plans — that we’ve decided what summit we’d like to reach and that our time at Yale will guide us there.
“Knowing” that place we’d like to end up is to us a virtue, an additional step completed as we move towards a set goal. Those of us who doubt, are uncertain or have yet to decide our destinations often fret over our lack of firm direction. So, we scramble and reach for some easy path to make us feel secure.
Of course, paths are necessary elements of any journey. In many situations, an organized plan is the best way to achieve an end. But any honest Yalie can testify that, despite that, students are often deeply unsure of which pursuits we want to invest ourselves in.
Thus, being lost is a completely normal aspect of learning. In fact, for a student, you must first be lost to discover a right path later. And if you’re not truly certain of where you’d like to go, then lost is the best place to be.
So, yes, there are times and places for linear hikes and carefully laid plans. But college isn’t one of them. We Yalies, unlike hikers, have no dangerous wilderness to fear as we navigate our time here. Beyond our paths lie instead wildernesses of opportunity, where unmapped territory is teaming with life-changing experiences, enthusiastic people and abundant resources.
When we are daring — when we overcome the discomfort of uncertainty — and step off our paths to forfeit our false senses of direction, our deep instincts will be our only compasses. We’ll be best poised to hear our honest callings, to stumble upon truly orienting experiences.
So, here’s the point. For first years: Don’t scramble for a set major or preconceived idea of the Yale experience. That’s needlessly hasty and likely misled. Be lost — and know that it’s better to have no path at all than to follow one that leads you to the wrong peak.
To everyone else: Don’t be afraid to step off a trail that you’re already following. What we’d like to study, which pursuits we hold onto, which ones we leave behind — these questions of how and where to invest ourselves are ones that can only be answered after much time has passed.
In that time, it’s okay to take a wrong turn, to retrace your steps, and rethink your direction. It’s not shameful or too late to quit your path if it makes you unhappy. It’s wise, and it’s worth it.
Of course, this is all a romantic notion, often easier said than done. But logistics shouldn’t impede your passions. Take a risk, even if the consequences seem at first inconvenient. Question your planned routes and your deep commitments. If you find that you haven’t been honest with yourself about what truly makes you tick, then get lost.
ANDREW BALLARD is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.