Navigating Uncertainty: Coming to Terms with the Unknown

A pervasive source of distress amongst college students is the big question mark occupying the space on the calendar that starts around tomorrow and extends indefinitely.

By Tamar Honig

Jamie Manley / The Chicago Maroon



March 17, 2016

It’s 10 p.m. You’re in the Reg, cramming for that O-Chem test.

Do you even want to be a doctor?

It’s 11 p.m. You peruse summer internship listings, wondering which will look most impressive on your resume.

What do these titles mean? “Wealth management production intern”?

It’s midnight. You wrangle with your paper, frantically attempting to contribute something worthwhile to centuries of scholarship on Marx or Machiavelli.

How will you ever succeed in life if you flunk this class?

And also, why has that guy you like not texted back?

College students find themselves in a most peculiar time in life. They’ve got just enough knowledge of and experience in the world to know a few things about what they like and don’t like, but uncertainty about the future looms as a nearly permanent fixture in the backdrop of their daily doings.

A pervasive source of distress amongst college students is the big question mark occupying the space on the calendar that starts around tomorrow and extends indefinitely.

So many students’ idea of a dream job changes every few months. Others have yet to light upon even one such idea. There have been many a freshman crying in the library bathroom in terror of a midterm that might destroy her chances of getting into law school, and there is of course the senior wondering if he’s just signed away those valuable first post-college years to an industry that will make him rich but not happy. Pan to my roommate, plunking herself on the couch late at night with her head in her hands and uttering the words so many of us have thought at one point or another: “I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

This is an effort to present those stories, to explore these anguishes and others associated with what happens once students depart campus. This is an investigation into how uncertainties about the future affect the college years, and how various university resources respond to student concerns about the unknowable time beyond them.


One True Calling?

In a Ted Talk last year, writer, artist, and career coach Emilie Wapnick discussed the case of “multipotentialites”—those who have a range of interests and jobs over their lifetime. She described the challenge they face in a society that asks its members to pick a lane and stay in it.

“We are first asked the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ when we’re about five years old. And the truth is that no one really cares what you say when you’re that age. It’s considered an innocuous question, posed to little kids to elicit cute replies, like, ‘I want to be an astronaut,’ or ‘I want to be a ballerina,’ or ‘I want to be a pirate.’ Insert Halloween costume here.”

“But this question gets asked of us again and again as we get older in various forms,” Wapnick continued. “And at some point, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ goes from being the cute exercise it once was to the thing that keeps us up at night. Why?”

Wapnick attributed this change to a culture that romanticizes the notion of the narrowly focused life that subscribes to destiny and encourages the discovery of a one true calling. In many ways a college campus embodies this culture. Students are advised to think carefully about their major, their classes, and their summer plans, keeping in mind how these choices will directly impact their future trajectory.

But the reality is that aspirations can change radically and many times over the course of a lifetime, and even within the span of a college education.

“When I started college, I wouldn’t ever have pictured doing anything that had to do with data analytics or research or econ—all that was capitalist, evil, or whatever, but now I’m liking that stuff,” said Mary Vansuch, a third-year double majoring in economics and statistics.

David Livingstone has had a similarly non-linear route. A fourth-year environmental science major, he hopes to be accepted into the Maritime Academy post-graduation, and eventually, to dedicate his future to sailing tall ships.

“I wanted to be a Unitarian minister before I came here, which is weird because I’m a lifelong atheist, but, I don’t know, I liked the idea of leading a congregation, which I don’t think is too dissimilar to leading a ship and a crew. Then I wanted to do pre-med because I wanted to help people […] but decided I didn’t want to be in school for that long and what I liked about the field was the idea of helping people and not necessarily the science […] So I decided to become an environmental science major so I could trick people into letting me go on adventures, and it worked. It worked: I got to go on a ship.”

Rita Jefferson, a third-year anthropology major, discussed her recent revelation that she does not want to go into academia, as she thought earlier in her college experience. She now plans on attending law school after graduation.

“I’ve been in a bunch of theoretical anthropology classes where you learn about how hard people have it, and I was just like, ‘Okay, so this is interesting to me in a way where I want to help people, but that’s not necessarily what the job is of anthropologists,’ so I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I do something quote-unquote practical with my career, I can actually try to help people.’”


Thoughts on the Future

That college is a stressful time for many is no groundbreaking revelation. In a survey conducted to gather information for this article, students cited causes of stress including schoolwork, family, friends, romantic interests, clubs and organizations, money, work, health related issues, and Ted Cruz’s popularity, among other things. On a scale from 1 to 10—1 being not stressed at all and 10 being the most stressed—the median response to how stressed one feels on a consistent basis was a 6.8.

As for how much participants worry about the future, on a scale from 1 to 10—1 being not at all and 10 being very much—the average response was a 7.2

Results from this survey indicated that for many, thinking about the future has significant consequences on their state of mind in the present. Having plans and concrete prospects seems linked to happiness.

“I got into the law school I wanted to go to, was able to defer for a year, and have a cool job in a city I really wanted to live in. I’m very happy when I think about the future,” said one fourth-year respondent about to graduate with a degree in Law, Letters, and Society.

On the other hand, not knowing what the future holds often begets feelings of stress, sadness, and inadequacy.

“Being around so many people who are clearly going to be successful is frustrating because the field I am going into is completely uncertain and you very rarely break in before you’re around thirty. You kind of have to trust in yourself and your abilities, which can be difficult as it comes and goes in waves. Some days you feel very confident about yourself, the next you’re sure that you’re a failure,” said a third-year double majoring in philosophy and cinema and media studies.

A considerable portion of respondents expressed similar sentiments in response to how thoughts of the future influence the mindset of the present.

“It is a driving force for me, but causes most of my stress. I feel the need to accomplish a lot and failure is terrifying.”

“It really makes me anxious and depressed.”

“Oh I’m a wreck.”

Other respondents recognized their uncertainty towards the future as a source of excitement and motivation.

“I think that thinking about the future is what keeps me happy in the present. It’s what makes what I’m doing worth it, and it always will be; at no point will I have arrived. I will always be working towards the next thing, and that’s the way I want it to be,” a first-year participant wrote.

This rosy outlook could be attributed to the participant’s status as a first-year, blissfully unaware of the trials and tribulations awaiting them in the upperclassmen years. But positivity need not erode as life experience is accrued. Though it may feel like additional years only bring additional questions, time spent collecting knowledge is time spent becoming enriched, even if the practical application is not yet clear.

“Not knowing is the beginning of wisdom,” wrote third-year MeeSoh Bossard, a comparative human development major and creative writing minor. “I think the question should be what do you want to do during your life, not with your life, as if life were a weapon or a tool. Your moments are both the fabric and instruments with which you craft your impact, but I don’t think it’s your life itself that is being woven into some grand plan. Pursue what you find interesting, ask questions, identify problems and try to solve them, wrestle with puzzles—or do none of that. You’re a being, just be as authentically you as possible in each moment.”

Naturally, for most students regardless of their year in the college, contemplating the future produces a mixed bag of emotions.

“The distant future is a wonderful place where I’m accomplishing my goals, and I’m a happy person. The middle future is hazy and uncertain, and probably involves a lot of work. The immediate future is a bearable struggle. Typically, thinking about these things brings me some anxiety,” a first-year said.


Passions Versus Practicality

Questions about what to pursue are tough to tackle in an environment inundated with so many powerfully competing pressures. Our hearts tell us to explore our passions and our heads tell us to find a lucrative career. We’re encouraged to seize these years as the best of our lives – to form friendships and fall in love and make lifelong memories of wild nights. In the same breath we’re warned not to squander away our education, to study hard, and earn top marks. And lead a club. And publish a novel. And found a philanthropy.

Students strive to make choices that will have made their tuition dollars worth it. But a positive return on investment for the years spent at university requires more than just securement of a stable salary. How prominent of a role are factors like happiness and fulfillment allowed to play?

This question brings many students to a crossroads. In the survey, students were asked if they foresee a potential conflict between what they would like to do and what they feel they should do in their futures.

“I feel like the phrase ‘what I should do’ is a particularly complicated one, and I’m not sure I know entirely what that means to me yet,” second-year Brian Tsuru wrote. “For example, if I have the potential to be really good at, say, surgery […] but I would really rather be a zookeeper, am I doing the right thing by making myself happy or by doing something I’m good at that also helps people?”

Jefferson also noted the pressure on students to make good on their UChicago education.

“We have become the privileged class. We have become the people who can make change in the world, so we feel like we should,” she said.

Many responses echoed this perceived dichotomy of passions versus practicality.

“I have a drive for helping people [.…] It’s consulting for now—as the ‘should’ do—with the hope that I can move to what I want to do later,” said a fourth-year double majoring in mathematics and economics.

“I have always loved art, but I’m not sure if that’s what I want to do…or even can do. Majoring in Visual Art is basically a joke around here, which is hard to justify to myself when you have Bio majors on their way to curing cancer,” said a second-year double majoring in political science and visual arts.

For many, the difficulty lies not only in choosing whether to pursue one’s passion, but also in identifying what that passion is in the first place.

“Not just have my interests changed, but I have come to question my abilities in certain areas. I am struggling to figure out what my ‘passion’ is and whether that pursuit will even do justice to a UChicago education,” a second-year said.

Bossard touched on why it’s not always so simple to pursue one’s passions. “While doing what you love is very important and beneficial health-wise, at the same time […] it’s assuming that these people that you’re talking to come from a place of privilege […] where they will be able to support themselves in some way, shape, or form— like monetarily, socially, emotionally—by doing what they love.”


Keeping Up With Classmates

The largest percentage of respondents perceived themselves as less certain than their friends and classmates about what they will do in their futures (38.55 percent). 27.71 percent felt more certain than their friends and classmates on this point, and 33.73 percent felt they had about the same level of certainty as their peers.

“Everyone has enough friends that they have a friend who will always be doing better than them [….] I definitely have friends who are getting job offers now and it’s hard not to compare yourself to them,” fourth-year Daniel Hughes said.

“I trust the opinions and values of my friends and often look to them for advice. I will often talk myself out of pursuing something if my friends deem it stupid or impractical, which I know I shouldn’t do. I tend to think that they are all much smarter than I am, so if they hold that opinion, then there must be a legitimate reason,” said a second-year double majoring in political science and visual arts.

Other responses reflect the possibility of drawing feelings of inspiration more than inadequacy from the success and ambition of others.

“I think that coming to UChicago was really eye-opening for many people, including myself. There are so many amazing, talented people here who tacitly encourage me to be my best self. It can be a lot of pressure,” said a second-year political science major.

Amid reactions to the talents and success of others ranging from envy to admiration, a number of respondents also emphasized the importance of staying true to their own direction without being deterred by anyone else’s thoughts and actions.

“Other people’s opinions haven’t had much effect because, well, they shouldn’t. It’s my life, so my decision to make,” said a third-year studying math and computer science.

A fourth-year on the brink of completing the economics major responded, “I’ll end up where I end up; they’ll end up where they end up. Life’s not a measuring contest.”

Comparison is a natural habit and a healthy one in certain amounts. But on a non-linear route with limited visibility of upcoming ascents and descents, one’s own progress can be difficult to monitor. Oftentimes it is simply easier to observe the apparent triumphs of others, without seeing the pitfalls they have also encountered.

Career Advancement

One starting point in the search for future clarity is Career Advancement. I recall scheduling advising appointments with this university service my first year. My expectation was something along the lines of handing the career-advancing genies my resume, watching them consult their crystal ball, and walking out with my wishes granted for a summer internship and career trajectory. Surely after enough time languishing in indecision, some fairy godmother figure materializes or a divine intervention transpires that clues unsure students in to their destined path.

Though the Career Advancement office clearly cannot fulfill this vision, it does take steps to address students’ uncertainty in its own way. Dan Moore, assistant director of Experiential Education at Career Advancement, explained the steps that they can take to help clarify the future.

“[…] If a student is empowered to make an informed, confident decision about their career path, find and secure relevant opportunities, and develop a skill set that they can use throughout their professional life, then planning for the future becomes much less terrifying,” Moore wrote in a statement.

There are talent assessment tools and pre-professional programs, internship and externship opportunities, research positions, and on-campus jobs. Advisers, programs, and workshops help guide students on all manner of subjects from resume writing to job hunting to networking. The abundance of opportunities for professional development is almost dizzying.

Third-year Andrew Mao, a Career Peer Advisor trained by Career Advancement to provide career advice to students, weighed in on the occasionally inundating array of counseling voices.

“Having been counseled by almost every single career counselor in this office and then a bunch of different academic advisors and then a bunch of different life guru advisors, I would say every single person is going to tell you a different opinion, often directly antithetical opinions. I think the most important thing is each of these opinions doesn’t have to have a hold on your life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find use for them,” Mao said.

“People who give you advice want to see you succeed. Take that advice as a directional wind instead of a nudging hand.”


Student Counseling Services

Another potential source of guidance is Student Counseling Services (SCS). Though both services handle concerns regarding anxiety over future prospects, their approaches diverge considerably. Whereas Career Advancement offers a multitude of strategies and resources aimed at making professional development more manageable, SCS shies away from dispensing concrete advice, according to Dr. David Albert, clinical psychologist and director of SCS. Instead, the counselors seek to provide a space for students where they can think about what they might want to do with their lives, or simply become more comfortable with the understanding that they don’t quite know.

Emily Carter, another clinical psychologist at SCS, echoed this sentiment.

“I don’t usually offer advice per se, but rather I encourage students to explore what they need to increase functioning and decrease distress [….] We often encourage students to take care of themselves by engaging in self-care, self-compassion, and to do more of what they find pleasurable,” Carter wrote in a statement.

“One could postulate that […] there is a social pressure, perceived or actual, that after college or graduate school one ‘should’ have more certainty for their future. Or students assume other people know what to do and they are the only ones in this place of not knowing,” Carter added.

Validating and normalizing students’ experiences is key, Albert explained. Students often think that there is something wrong with them, that they are alone in their bewilderment regarding the future, when in fact much of this struggle comes with the territory of being on the cusp of adulthood.

“It makes me think of social media,” Albert said. “It makes me think of the fact that everybody seems so happy on Facebook, but in fact most everybody struggles [….] We see lots of students, and we see lots of students because these are common concerns, common challenges, and I think students often feel very alone with these, or ashamed to admit that they’re struggling. There’s a lot of stigma still associated with emotional struggles and an interesting thing about stigma is that the primary type that prevents students from coming to a service like ours is something called perceived public stigma.”

Perceived public stigma, Albert explained, is what students think others would think of them if they knew they were getting help. Most students are much more likely to assume that others will think less of them for seeing a counselor than they would be to think negatively of others for doing the same.

“There’s just a lot of shame that goes along with the notion of struggling emotionally, and I think one of the ways to combat that is to educate students about the fact that these are quite normative worries,” Albert said.

“I think it’s important for people who are under a lot of stress about the future to realize that they’re not alone. A lot of that can be really isolating [….] Just knowing that other people feel the same way makes it a lot easier to manage,” said third-year Leah Ansel.


Invisible Challenges

How can the invisibility of these challenges be dispelled? Survey participants shared their thoughts on fostering more openness about their uncertainties. The question: what advice would you give to a friend who approached you with the concern of not knowing what to do with their future?

“I would talk to them about my favorite Steve Jobs quote—the one where he emphasizes trusting that the dots will connect,” a second-year. “He mentions that during the time in his life when he had no idea what he was doing, he happened to take a calligraphy course. The course later influenced major parts of the Apple code and format, even though he didn’t initially plan on it. I think there’s something really beautiful about two serendipitous moments intertwining like that.”

Another second-year commented on the oft-unconsidered flip side of having a one true calling.

“If you know already what you want to do with your life… doesn’t that sound like a really boring next twenty years? I think being open-minded about what you can do is not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Most people have this weird, twisty, windy path they took to get to wherever they are and you’ll figure it out and you’ll be fine,” Vansuch said.

Winters are cold, classes are hard, and romantic intrigues are as tricky to navigate as the cryptic clues on the annual Scav Hunt list. Nobody will question the right to be distressed over a lackluster grade, an overloaded schedule, or an unanswered text. But these complaints only begin to scratch the surface of what’s really weighing on the mind. College students doubt their desirability to everyone from potential employers to potential dates. Failure and rejection are terrifying prospects.

In her 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling discussed the inevitability of failure as well as its benefits.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default,” Rowling said.

“So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement,” she later went on. “Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.”

College students may have yet to master the Time Turner, but they still manage to pick up a few important lessons over the course of their university years. A certain degree of drifting and doubting may occur, but if it is true that not all those who wander are lost, perhaps one could add that not all who are lost are hopeless.

“They don’t teach tall ships; they don’t teach nautical science; they don’t teach navigation or charting in school. I still found out that that’s what I like—that’s what I want to learn,” said Livingstone.

Being that we cannot know for sure the twists and turns of the way, and being that we’ll be en route for quite a while, it may benefit us to get comfortable with our enduring companion: uncertainty.