In the opening scene of the fourth season of Girls, Hannah’s parents toast to her “next step” as an MFA student, to which her boyfriend Adam snarkily responds, “To Hannah, taking the next step in a series of random steps.”
The phrase “a series of random steps” has echoed through my mind many times since. It describes a good portion of my life. I think it encapsulates many of our stories.
Three months ago, I turned down a job offer, gave up my apartment, and moved across the country from San Francisco to New York. When my friends and family asked why, I couldn’t give them a good answer, which seemed odd for such a dramatic move. It made me happy, but I wasn’t sure why. It was a somewhat random step.
My first move to New York two years ago was fairly random as well. I had a friend there who needed a roommate. I worked remotely. I left behind my boyfriend and the safety of my college town. There was no good reason other than that my lease was up, I had to make a decision about where to live, and this didn’t seem like a bad one.
Most decisions contain an element of randomness. When we order a meal, there’s usually something else on the menu we would enjoy. When we sign a lease, there are many other places we could live. How do we deal with not knowing we made the right choice?
Over the past three months, there have been times when I struggled with that uncertainty. There have been moments when I got lost in New York’s expansive subway system and yearned for a smaller city. When the crowds overwhelmed me and I craved the escape of Golden Gate Park. When I grew exasperated with work and wondered what would have happened if I accepted the job offer I had out west. These are the thoughts that halt me in my tracks.
But there have been times when I’ve gazed out the window over the Brooklyn Bridge and felt glad I could see that exact sunset. When I’ve wandered the same streets of midtown Manhattan that my grandparents walked decades ago and felt comfort in following their footsteps. When I was thankful my parents were just a Long Island Railroad ride away. When I stumbled across writing opportunities that only existed here. These are the thoughts that keep me walking.
Lately, I’ve been reminding myself of these moments to feel better about my decision. I get to be near my family, I tell myself. I get to be around other writers. Truth be told, that’s not why I moved; I simply did what felt right. But justifying my decision after the fact has given me peace of mind.
We explain many of our decisions ad-hoc, only usually, we do this so quickly we don’t notice what we’re doing. We confuse our rationalizations with our reasons, then we cite them to satisfy others’ curiosity: “I was homesick.” “I was seeking better work opportunities.”
This was the first time I saw my justifications for what they were: a way to make my steps seem less random. But I’ve also realized I can use them in a different way: to appreciate where my random steps have led me.
Whenever I go out to eat with friends, I always want to taste their dishes before mine to make sure I’m not missing out. This is the most destructive impulse I fight: to order more than one dish, to be in two places at once. It has taken me a long time to realize that this impulse is not a sign of regret. Regret is when you select option A and wish you had picked B; instead, I suffer from the desire to answer every question life presents with “all of the above.”
But life is not a multiple-choice test. Its questions don’t usually have clear answers, and you can’t circle all or none of them. You have to pick one even when none seems better than the others. So, you eliminate the worst options, randomly choose one that remains, and try to stand by it.
As we get older, the questions only get harder. First, it’s what college to go to. Then, it’s what job to pursue. What city to live in. The options expand, leaving more and more room for mistakes. The steps grow ever more random.
More often than we’d like to admit, we’re not sure why we take the actions we do. We can only know what we gained from them, be thankful for these gains, and forget about what could have happened if we took a different direction. Even when we don’t know if we’ve made the best choices, we can still choose to see the upsides of our destinations, no matter how random the steps that led us there.