Heart racing, fingers jittery, I begin typing in my dimly lit common room.
“Dear Professor X, Thank you for giving me the opportunity to join your lab during the last few weeks. It was immensely helpful gaining a new perspective on relationship research. However —”
I take a long pause. I’m stuck again. How do I just say it … that I don’t want to continue? For hours on end, I’ve deliberated and analyzed this issue from every possible angle.
Last semester, I was in a psychology class called “Attractions and Relationships,” and relationship research intrigued me. However, the lab tasks weren’t what I had expected: I envisioned observing couples react to stimuli, analyzing their responses and formulating theories — think Dr. Aron’s “36 Questions That Lead to Love.” Instead, I entered stacks of surveys into a spreadsheet, day in and day out. Of course, behind every groundbreaking publication, there are years of humdrum work. Yet I was hesitant to commit five to 10 hours a week to that in my first year in college, a year meant for exploration.
But as I drafted the email, all I could feel was guilt, the paralyzing sort that usually makes me stay. I kept wondering: If I quit after barely one month in the lab, would I be “flaky?” Would I be the reason why professors decided against hiring first years? Did I have commitment issues?
I wrestled with commitment throughout my senior year of high school (I am still unsure who came out on top). My first year of high school, I signed up for almost every club, honor society and team imaginable. As a fairly mild-mannered teenager, I didn’t dislike any of them. So, I stayed. I held on until I was exhausted by numerous hours spent at general meetings earning “points” instead of lying on my bed swishing my paintbrush coated in vibrant watercolor paint over thick white paper. Late junior and early senior year, I quit a lot of clubs: from fluffy resume boosters like English Honor Society to ones which I had committed hours to, like the varsity debate team. I left them all, except for one.
Luckily, I learnt my lesson. When I started college earlier this year, I chose carefully, granting my email to a few organizations at the extracurricular bazaar. Was committing to the psychology research situation a mistake? Perhaps, but it wasn’t a problem of overcommitment. It was, instead, as part of the inevitable trial-and-error process on the road to finding my “passion.” I seem to be improving, right?
To some degree, yes — for clubs and large commitments. Yet I find myself continuously saying yes to small things: to Facebook events, to every single plan my friends make. I click the little “interested” button next to Facebook events even when I know I have a paper due. I used to believe that midnight was ungodly, but have now normalized sleeping at 3 a.m. after running from event to event. I say yes to late-night talks starting at 1 a.m., a spontaneous ramen-cooking session at 2 a.m., all while knowing that I have my 9 a.m. seminar in less than seven hours. Why? The fear of missing out on college, the temptation of friends or the awkwardness of turning down plans.
Growing up, people tell you the importance of keeping an open mind, saying yes to every opportunity and the pitfalls of being a “naysayer”. But I disagree: Say no. Sometimes, you may no longer want to do a certain activity and are merely trying to find the right wording to politely decline. For instance, you might enjoy spending time with someone initially, before realizing that the butterflies simply aren’t there. You settle and stay, even as your stomach sinks and your mind whispers “It’s not meant to be.”
People are applauded for trying new things; they’re considered courageous. I’m not disputing that they are. But it also takes courage to undertake a venture, recognize that it’s not quite right and say “Sorry, I don’t think I can continue” — instead of remaining stranded in an organization, a job or a relationship that feels like a compromise more than a choice.
I resume typing.
“However, upon further reflection, I wanted to inform you that I am unable to continue with lab research this semester.”
I sign off and tap send.
Michelle Fang is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .