Pre-Something-or-Other: The Subtle Joys of an Unformed Future

He, a retired doctor, and I, a bubbly high-school senior, both clutched our books excitedly as we waited in line for author Annie Proulx to sign them. We were strangers and many decades apart in age, yet we still made small talk to pass the time.

“What do you want to study in college?” he asked me. “I’m thinking English, but I’m not sure,” I responded. He slanted his eyes and gave me a look. “I know what you’re thinking,” I said to him, “but it’s something I really like, and I don’t want to regret having wasted four years at college having studied something I couldn’t care less about.” He shook his head and chuckled, and what he told me then was a little tongue-in-cheek, but serious nonetheless: “Your real first regret is going to be when you can’t land a job after you graduate.”

It feels like everyone these days has concrete life goals and ambitions and plans from A to Z. If sewing the hole in my pants or finishing the book I started six months ago counts, I have goals too. If not, I’m out of luck. When I voice my speculative concerns and worries to others, their reactions are mixed. Like the man in the book-signing line a few years ago, some listeners tell me my worries are justified and advise me to take an economics or computer science class. Others tell me to stop worrying and realize that life will work itself out in the end.

In spite of my concerns, I’m inclined to agree with the latter advice. Some pathways may yield more money than others, some more stories, and maybe some more happiness. But unless one such decision leads me to a penchant for opiates, or parachute-free skydiving, none of these pathways will end my life. It doesn’t feel low-stakes to me though—it’s downright frightening to be at the mercy of random events and decisions without a plan to ground me.

Frankly, I’m jealous of those who do know what they want to do with their lives, and if I could snap my fingers and suddenly want to be an engineer or a doctor, I would. I’m even jealous of those who pursue less lucrative futures—those who yearn to be bakers and painters and poets. I’ve walked this earth as long as they have, and they know what they like to do, and I don’t? What have I done wrong?

In defense of those like me with hazy futures and yet unformed passions, I say this: an unplanned future is a beautiful one because there is no space for doubt or despair when a dream changes or fails, as they often do. There is no use in pursuing a future just for the sake of doing so. To plan for the future is really to plan for a future present, and if planning for that vague and ominous territory makes the current present feel stressful and contrived, I would argue the benefits of keeping future plans to a solid minimum.

It’s frustrating how much pressure the college system puts on young people to decide what they want to do with their lives when they are still growing and changing as people. The college admissions process dictates that we brand ourselves as if we know everything about our characters and what we want to do with our lives. Even worse, exorbitant loans force us to take on majors and career paths that we think will pay off in the long run, allowing lush fields of interest to go unexplored.

At that book signing a few years ago, that man’s statement about regrets hurt me more than I expected. It’s obviously still on my mind, but here I am, an English major at CC. Do I want to be a teacher, a writer, or a journalist? I don’t know. Am I fine with that? I know at least that I should be.

My retiree-friend and I reached the front of the queue, and I stepped up to have Annie Proulx sign my book. She’s an incredible writer and a sharp, no-frills kind of woman. I admire her greatly, so, of course, I got embarrassingly emotional and had her sign my book quickly. As I turned and walked away, signed book pressed to my chest, I heard the retired doctor begin to tell her that he’s recently taken up fiction writing and asks if she has any tips for him. Despite all his judgement, it appears that there’s a little room for uncertainty and changes in life for everyone—no matter where, or at what age, they find themselves.

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