This week in my creative writing class, my professor mentioned that he had recently read The Poetics of Music, a work by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. In it, Stravinsky mentions how, when composing a piece of music, he was sometimes utterly paralyzed by the “infinite possibilities” at his disposal. Every choice he made — each carefully placed note, chord, and phrase — could affect the composition as a whole.
Like Stravinsky, I am also sometimes utterly paralyzed by the infinite possibilities before me — though my particular paralysis is more existential than artistic. As college students on the brink of our twenties, we are led to believe that our four years represent the blissful purgatory between adolescence and — shudder — adulthood. During this time, we are free from serious responsibility; for the most part, our parents and professors still coddle us.
However, the decisions we make during college take on a certain gravity because they seem as though they could have the power to affect the course of our lives. The classes we take determine our major. Our majors determine our jobs and post-graduate prospects. The friends we make shape our social lives. The people we date leave inedible impressions upon our romantic psyches.
Intro to Psych or Intro to Political Science? Major in Economics or History? Date William — who can quote Barthes (hubba hubba) and plays the guitar — or hook up with Nick — whose undeniable social clout is just as attractive as his six-pack?
With so many choices before us, it is hard to decide upon one particular path in life without feeling unbearably overwhelmed. How do we possibly work towards a goal when we don’t even know what our goal is, when there are thousands of different goals we can pursue? How can we commit steadfastly when we fall in love with some new person or interest every single week?
This summer, as I entered my junior year of college and inched closer towards the Real World (where people have K-cup makers, mortgages, and credit scores greater than zero), I had a bit of a quarter-life crisis. I realized that I had no more idea what I wanted to do with my life than when I first started school two years ago as a blissfully naïve freshman whose biggest problem was whether or not I should text that boy I really liked.
As summer progressed and I spent hours in my room, researching internships and graduate programs, I realized that I didn’t know what I enjoyed enough that I would want to dedicate the rest of my life (or a sizable chunk of my life) to it. And, even worse, I had no idea how people learned to pinpoint their interests. It seemed to me that my classmates had already begun to concentrate on particular ambitions — from swanky finance jobs in New York City to medical school to teaching fellowships in India.
At the height of my despair, I ended up having a few conversations with friends much older and certainly much wiser than me. When I learned that these friends — who were already 27 or 28 or 30, ages that seemed so dauntingly old to someone who wasn’t even quite 20 at the time — were still figuring out their own lives, I began to breathe a little easier. I didn’t have to have all the answers. None of us ever have to have all the answers.
Stravinsky was onto something. There are infinite permutations to every decision we could make, which is a daunting prospect but should also excite us. Though the choices we make do impact our lives, they don’t hold us hostage to any one path in particular — we can always take a different route or a detour if we want to.
Maybe in a couple of years, I will have decided what I want to do after college. Or, maybe, I will drop everything, move to a tiny flat in Paris, and live out my secret dream of writing novels and romancing Europeans. Who knows? I surely don’t. And instead of being paralyzed, I am learning how to let all these infinite possibilities invigorate me.