In Defense of Not Knowing

The end-goal of college can’t simply be a career path, a job or money—in fact, sometimes it might be better to have no goal in sight at all.

By Annie Geng

I absorb news in bits and pieces: from a cursory glance at the newspaper resting on the doorstep outside my apartment as I head to class in the morning, to small bits (did you hear so-and-so happened?) of eavesdropped conversations as I walk through the quad, to the glow of my phone’s screen as I scroll through my Facebook feed, my attention latching onto certain things here and there.

To me, the goings-on of the world, from the personal to the political, seem to occur disjointedly. I, however, gravitate towards structure. I’m inclined to try to piece these events together, to contextualize them within some broader, coherent story. This is a purposeful exercise for me—it endows meaning into the most chance occurrences. It makes misfortune palatable; it makes fortune more celebratory. It justifies even the most inexplicable things that happen to me—it gives them a why.

Why becomes a central question when we apply to college. We are asked to explain why we made certain academic, personal, or extracurricular decisions. We are expected to weave together all these things into something that makes sense, a narrative that expresses a progression of character that some college may arbitrarily deem worthy of acceptance. In this, getting into college is framed as the conclusion to our narrative at this point in life, one which we should plan for in advance strategically.

This process warps us into a tunnel vision that continues into college, where the new conclusion is, for many of us, landing a job. It feels reasonable to dedicate our time in college to this singular pursuit. We pick classes that give us technical skills that seem more “employable.” We pick majors less because of our interest and more because they seem lucrative—a means to a lavish end. From the very beginning of college, we predicate our academic decisions on the predetermined goal of finding a job that will maybe not make us fulfilled, but at least rich. We plan out our stories, years in advance, step-by-step, in a way that fits onto a resume, an eight and a half by eleven-inch piece of paper. Don’t forget the one-inch margins either.

Working towards the singular goal of money is completely understandable, and warranted. It goes without saying that UChicago—as with any private university—can be financially prohibitive. Almost half of us receive some sort of need-based financial aid, and the strain imposed by attending this university is certainly felt by even some of those who don’t receive aid. Some of us also definitely feel a pressure from our families to view college as a means to money, especially if you’re a child of immigrants, like me, or first-generation. The expectation is that we should be able to eventually support our families, too.

I definitely get scared about the future. I think we all do—even those of us who seem to have everything planned out. When we enter college and begin grasping what it means to be independent, the big life questions that we know well—what do I want to become?, for instance—become punctuated by a finality—what do I become for the rest of my life?—that makes us both overwhelmed and confused. When we don’t know what we’re doing, we try to exert some image of appearing that we do. We tell ourselves that we must land this or that internship, so that we might receive a return offer there in the near future, because the only end to life that we can foresee now is making a lot of money.

I’m not saying we should stop caring about money. I just think that we, as students here, tend to inflate the importance of entering certain career paths. You’ll make money wherever you choose to work, even if it’s not Wall Street. Even so, there is more to life than making money, and college is a space that has structure and resources and is an opportune time to figure out what this means for you. For those rushing ahead into a career, when are you going to figure out what you care about? Careers and paychecks are so finite—what’s going to drive you in life beyond that? And, at the end of the day, all of us are lucky enough to go to a school like UChicago, let alone a college—these facts alone indicate our privilege.

Why not slow down a little bit—take interesting classes that expand your understanding, challenge your values, and allow you to develop as a person. Join RSOs because they fulfill you in the moment. The things you do in college don’t always need to fit into some structured, premeditated story. Just as things happen in our world that are simply incomprehensible, you can’t plan out everything in life just yet. As a generation, we change jobs, on average, at least four times in our first decade out of college. The plan you have for your future might easily be unraveled by sheer circumstance.

Each of our lives will surely have a story—we’ll each have our arcs, our conflicts, our resolutions. But we don’t need to hastily jump towards the end, or write our story years in advance, as if that’s really possible. We can slow down. We can savor college by doing things that help us understand who we are, rather than working towards a paycheck. After all, I’ve heard these four years go by pretty fast.

Annie Geng is a second-year in the College.