No Shame in Not Knowing

When I talk to freshmen about what they want to study, I'm struck by how many confidently answer with their choices - "I'm pre-med." "I want to study econ." "I want to do bio." When the answer is "I don't know," it's usually given almost apologetically. When you apply to college, you want to show that you're passionate and driven. It's embarrassing if you're not sure what you want to do; it makes you seem unfocused, meandering, pointless. That's an attitude that's hard to kick, even as you go through college. As upperclassmen, we tend to carry the same ethos through when we apply for jobs. I should be hired to work for Goldman Sachs, we say, or J.P. Morgan, or Credit Suisse, because I used to dress up as an investment banker for Halloween in elementary school, because I had pictures of Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein pasted into my notebooks in middle school, because I read the Financial Times more thoroughly than my AP Literature coursework in high school.

But there are two main problems with this belief that passions must be lifelong and instilled at an early age. The first problem is that people are terrible at predicting their future preferences (I study behavioral economics; it's practically one of the founding statements of the field). The second problem is that college freshmen know essentially nothing. We start college at an age when our minds haven't finished developing, often with little or no experience living on our own as adults within society. The things we want to study or explore when we begin college may be quite different in their reality than in our imagination. Which doesn't mean that it's bad to start college with a burning thirst to study sociology - just that it's dangerous to let a passion developed in your teens to close you off to other opportunities.

Socrates claimed that while he knew nothing, he was nevertheless the wisest man in Athens - since none of the other Athenians knew anything either, but he was the only one who realized his own ignorance. There is no shame beginning or even ending college not knowing where you want your life to go, as long as you acknowledge that you don't know, instead of throwing yourself down a path that turns out to be the wrong one.

                                                                                                                                                             —Jinah K, C'18