“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked…I saw myself starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
The Bell Jar
My time at the University of Minnesota was fine but not nearly as great as it could have been. The first two years were especially unremarkable. During this time, I felt like a mere goldfish in the school’s ocean of social and professional opportunities. With over 50,000 students and staff, 150 majors, and 500 student groups, I felt as though I was drowning in resources. In this article, I explain how my fear of making wrong decisions deterred me from making any decisions. I then explain how such paralysis impedes one from living am optimally exciting life.
I tried very hard to convince my parents and school counselors to let me take a leave of absence and try my hand at something other than school, but they persuaded me to get my degree before experiencing life outside of college. They told me that studying abroad may give me the type of novel experience I was seeking without stalling my anticipated graduation date. I eventually complied and chose to study at the University of Glasgow in Scotland during my penultimate college semester.
I didn’t know anyone when I first arrived in the UK, so the degree to which my semester abroad would be eye-opening or anxiety-inducing was entirely on my shoulders. I could disengage from the school’s social opportunities for the sake of my own comfort, or I could get used to the discomfort that comes with trying to meet new people. I chose the second course of action, saying yes to any opportunity that came my way. That sentence sounds vague, but it genuinely captures my attitude while I was abroad. I joined three clubs which is three more than I joined in all my time at the University of Minnesota. Moreover, my roommates and I had nearly nothing in common at first glance, but openness and curiosity helped us form strong relationships. The benefits of being open to every opportunity in Scotland was also the key stimulus that turned me on to the idea of teaching English in China for a year. Altogether, my semester abroad, as it is for many, was the most exciting of my college career.
But there is no reason that the excitement of my semester in Scotland had to be confined to that time or place. It was fun and interesting to be so easily exposed to people from other cultures, but the University of Minnesota offers at least as much of an opportunity to do so. Its student population is almost five times as large as the University of Glasgow’s student base, and it has hundreds of more student groups. So why was being abroad so much more exciting than my first four semesters at a college that theoretically has more opportunity for new experiences? At the University of Minnesota, I let the fear of unknown results stop me from taking action. Choosing a major felt like a decision that would close myself off to all other subjects. The task of narrowing down the student groups from over 500 to a select few felt similarly daunting, and the vast size of the student population posed the same challenge for meeting new people. As a result, I stayed in my comfort zone for the first two years of college. I had no major, took part in no extracurriculars, and hung out with few non-high school friends.
Studying abroad was exhilarating because I was forced me to make decisions if I wanted to make that semester valuable. I didn’t care about the outcomes of my decisions, figuring that if I pursued every opportunity, then I’d make at least a few interesting friends and have an overall fun experience. This ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ approach did just what I hoped it would. It is now strange to trace back the random paths of the relationships formed abroad. Most of my friends came from random events that I did not really want to join but did so because I had nothing better to do. Rasmus, the other author on this site, and I met at a pub when a mutual friend gave me a polite but indifferent invitation to join them at a pub one night. We happened to talk about our interests, and we immediately fell in love. Kidding. Kind of. But all my relationships abroad formed through similar opportunities that I neglected for the first two years of college.
After studying abroad, I resolved to employ the same opportunity-oriented mindset back at the University of Minnesota during my final semester. My final semester was fantastic, but I am a bit saddened to consider the fact that my first two years in college would have been similarly great had I not been so cautious about making decisions.
The decisions we make are not as important as making them. Chasing 100 opportunities may leave us with 10 memorable experiences/relationships and 90 forgettable ones. But who cares about the 90 forgettable experiences? They’re forgotten and don’t diminish our quality of life. The 10 successes make life exciting and justify all the time spent on failures. The same logic applies even when the success rate is lower than 10%. We don’t think about all of the awkward small-talk we had with strangers before meeting our friends. Nor do we dwell on the first-day meetings of clubs which we don’t end up joining. We focus on the few that flourish, rather than the many that don’t. Living a fascinating and complex life requires being open to any new experience within the confines of safe behavior.