I came into the University of Chicago undecided, and would have left undecided if they let me. I started out as an economics major and I honestly can’t remember why. I’m sure it was akin to a cute girl in my math class telling me it was the right way to go, which is exactly how a friend got roped into it. I slogged away for two years, thinking things were supposed to suck as much as they did. The trials of the Econ sequence were Spartan in nature, meant to weed out the weak and infirm and thrust them off the cliffs into the “lesser” majors. I came to view it like a Chicago winter, a long and wretched rite of passage that built character and bestowed grit, and I didn’t want to be one of the pathetic bastards who couldn’t handle it. Despite that, I didn’t make it.
It’s strange how the most trivial or obvious things can seem so revelatory. Late one night while I was hopelessly hacking away at a problem set, I realized I wasn’t learning anything I was interested in learning, and couldn’t bring myself to complete the assignment. The epiphany set in with a strange mixture of despondence and relief. The last two years felt meaningless and the future was suddenly caught in a maelstrom, but, at the same time, I was finally able to attribute solid insight to my feelings of discontent. That clarity of mind allowed me to turn the seemingly brash decision of immediately withdrawing from the three classes I was taking related to the major into the only recourse in which I was confident.
Though impetuous and abrupt in nature, the decision, like many aha moments, had actually been simmering and festering for nearly six excruciating months. Courage to make the decision and confidence to know it was for the right reason were two slow-burning ends of the same rope. When they finally met, all my reservations and worries had disintegrated into ash.
If you figure out what you don’t like, it doesn’t necessarily leave you better off. To stand against something is not the same as standing for something else. After I dropped economics, I felt like an unladed Atlas, but without a weight to carry, I also felt lost. Without a direction it was difficult to see where I stood in relation to the rest of the world. When you are stuck in the vast ocean of uncertainty, every direction looks the same; there’s no telling whether or not you will find the land you’re looking for until you start moving one way or another. I had always feared passing up opportunities, closing doors to the “adjacent possible” and never being able to open them again. I feared gaining expertise; I wanted to be well-rounded and adept at most things, so I thrashed about in every possible way letting impulse and instinct guide my decisions, choosing classes, books, and people solely on the principle of them seeming interesting or fun.
During that uncertain time, I also started going on long walks, by myself or with a friend. On these walks, I would often ask my company or myself any number of questions I had rattling around at the time. These walks were Socratic, a deluge of baffling “whys” that often left me entranced, but gradually revealed a hidden network of meaning behind what I was spending my time on. Like the tributaries of a great river, the things I enjoyed learning or were excited about slowly started to converge and help point me in a direction. Interestingly, if I looked back even further to the 20 or so years before college there were instances or people who have impacted future decisions, such that a genealogy of my personal interests could start to be constructed. Of course, all this can only be understood in hindsight. Individual moments are like the pages of a flipbook; only when seen collectively do they show their true merit.
As a recent alumnus I am still being tossed about by the unpredictable oscillations of life. In fact, things are far more in flux now than they were in college. The stakes are higher and there are far fewer resources to help make sense of everything. When I dropped economics, it was probably the first time I fully grasped that my life was my own, and that I could choose what direction to pursue. Years later, I really credit that as being a catalyst to knowing where I stand today, to having a job that allows me to get paid for things I enjoy, and to a balanced life I feel very fortunate to live. Your college experience will no doubt differ from my own; we have different interests, motivations, and there are very real financial and cultural forces that may shape your decisions differently than they shaped mine. Life is much more zigzag than it is a straight line, so feel free to explore. But also take the time to connect the dots. Go on long walks, write, or swim. Take time for yourself to earnestly think about how you are actively shaping your life. And finally, it seems trite, but always remember that it’s what you do next that counts. As long as you have a choice, which—guess what—you always do, there will always be an opportunity to get back on track.
Jerome Goodrich is an alum of the College.