When I started my college career, my life was all sketched out in my planner. Everything from my undergraduate degree to my eventual retirement was planned with an exact timeline and high expectations.
“This is what setting goals is,” I told myself. “It will make me better.”
I was going to be a mechanical engineer, get a bachelor’s with outstanding grades, then I would go to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon and allow myself to dabble more in the arts. I would find some niche career that combined my education with theater. I would end up on Broadway, designing incredible sets and maybe acting a little on the side. I would fall in love with my career, but when I decided to have children, I would realize it was taking too much time away from my family. So, I would settle down and become an eclectic inventor with a big garage full of raw materials from which the most incredible creations emerged.
What I didn’t entirely realize at the time was that my “goals” were more like desperate dreams I had crafted because I was afraid of the vast journey of the rest of my life that was sitting before me. College was the only thing standing between me and “real adulthood” and if I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do now, I felt like I would just end up wandering for the rest of my life. So halfway through my first semester, when I realized I just didn’t find mechanical engineering all that interesting, I was thrown off course, feeling like all my plans were crumbling and that my potential was slipping away.
What I learned is that life is a kaleidoscope of potential and opportunities, of passions and interests.
In my desperation to find my own path, I found honesty. Over the remainder of the semester, when people asked, “So what do you want to do after college?” I told them, “I don’t know, but I want to find something which sparks my passion.” Some people left it at that, but others asked me further questions. My calculus III professor was intrigued by my blunt response and invited me to have conversations with him about differential equations and numerical analysis every Thursday afternoon. A computer science professor I met at a Goodnight Faculty Dinner said she liked my passion and invited me to work in her lab.
Since I was no longer trying to decide whether these opportunities fit perfectly into some overarching plan, I said yes to all of them.
Not only did this build incredible relationships with amazing people, but it also allowed me to understand that nobody knows exactly what they’re going to do for the rest of their life. My calculus professor failed math all through high school, but found a mentor who really believed in him in college. Now he works for National Labs and is on the cutting edge of discovery. The computer science professor who offered me a position in her lab originally got her undergraduate degree in mathematics and didn’t discover her interest in computer science until graduate school. A graduate student who I connected with was the first of her family to go to college and had taken the plunge unsure of what she wanted, but had just followed whatever she loved at the moment.
What I learned is that life is a kaleidoscope of potential and opportunities, of passions and interests. If I try to force myself into choosing just one path, just one color, then all the beauty of it will fade. Today, I make a practice of asking the incredible individuals I meet, “Why did you choose your career?” and I listen to their response, piecing together my own path from the bits of suggestion I take from them. My current major, computer science, no longer makes me feel like I must bind myself to a single career, but is simply the structure through which I pursue whatever fascinates me at the time. Now, my goal for myself every day is simply to love what I am learning.
Everything else falls into place.
Photography credit: Jason Perry/Goodnight Scholars Program