January 22, 2022


3:28 p.m.

What Are We Doing?

In the search for our intellectual passions, "mistake" classes might be the answer.

Until fall quarter of my second year, I had successfully resisted the pressure to try out economics. I had always seen the world historically—what interested me were the broader forces that lead to the past becoming present, not necessarily the economic ones. But more and more acquaintances seemed to be succumbing to the economics department’s pull, and my armchair-economist, Freakonomics-disciple dad continued encouraging me to try it out. Finally, I decided, “I’m interested in society, right? And this is a very systematic way to study society that will open a lot of opportunities for me. And I know nothing about it.” I signed up for Elements of Economic Analysis I. I learned some economics, yes. But more importantly, I learned how to question both wise and misguided class choices in search of the underlying forces that drew me to them.

It was exciting at first. Very inexperienced, I felt electricity in the air as my professor charged right into utility, income constraints, and prices. The excited chatter and rapt attention of my classmates were far cries from the passivity of some Core classes I’d been in. I was thrilled at my new understanding of concepts that undergird the field—they have a clear, satisfying geometry that nuanced historical analysis can lack. But as the weeks passed, the novelty of the p-sets wore off and my focus in class waned. Genuine interest was replaced by an anxious weekly tedium.

Why was this happening? I couldn’t understand. This was supposed to be the perfect complement to my history major, the quantitative and qualitative yin and yang. I was dismayed and kept thinking that I’d learn to love the work if I just applied myself.

Then, one day, my professor went on a tangent about some finicky problem that a UChicago economist (of course) had untangled with a delightfully simple, clever solution. “Clever”—that word stuck with me. It sounded familiar. My dad! He uses the word the same way! A physicist, he also relishes difficult problems with simple, incisive solutions, and marvels at their “cleverness.” Maybe, I thought, this is exactly what doing econ work is: using basic principles to quantify social problems and uncover their clever answers. My dad and my professor are both people who find clever solutions to difficult problems. They’re one type of person!

My dilemma—that the idea of studying econ was attractive, but the work it demanded was repellent—was answered by the budding thought that I was a different type of person. The economists and the physicists find clever answers. “What do I do?” I thought. My girlfriend, explaining her interest in environmental research, offered a simple answer: do what you’ve always done. As a kid, she’d go to the creek behind her house and, in wonder, catch frogs and insects for hours. I guess I loved visiting my grandparents in Germany and Russia in the summers, where the world felt so thrillingly different. I loved spending four days of my gap year in Amsterdam, using long hours of wandering around and chance conversations at cafés and bars to weave an impression of the place. I also loved going to New Bedford, Massachusetts, just an hour from my home, seeing the forest of masts in the fishing port, and walking the streets Ishmael does in Moby-Dick. I love listening to story-rich folk songs and compiling them for my radio show on campus. So, what do I do?

I treat the question as a deep one that addresses basic roles, we all (I think) lean towards in our lives, beyond the plane of careers and hobbies. A good carpenter and a good rocket scientist do basically the same thing—they build and delight in the well-functioning product of their building. There is a parallel between a good hawker and a good marketing executive, between a painter and a poet. Though not everyone chooses the same jobs for the same reasons, many are drawn to seemingly different jobs by the same underlying desires. It’s likely that underneath the things we choose to do, there is a basic act, a type, a form, that makes us love it.

I was motivated to explore economics because it seemed to fit with my interests, but I hadn’t realized the one crucial fact: the work that constitutes economics is not the work I do. It doesn’t involve the basic act that makes me tick. Protected by pass/fail’s cocoon, I meditated on the matter during lecture time and arrived at the conclusion that, as my basic act, I collect stories and synthesize them into new ones. Even taking econ was a reflection of this act—I got an interesting glimpse inside the world-famous (or infamous?) department, observed its dissonance with my personality, and told this story about it. In the end, it taught me a valuable lesson about myself, pointing me to the underlying act that makes me love much of the other work I do. During our time at UChicago, we all look for a path to the storied “work that won’t feel like work.” To find it, perhaps we ought to question our past and present academic decisions, even the misguided ones, with the intent of figuring out what it is that we are really doing underneath it all.

Nick Rommel is a second-year in the College.