When I ask Stanford students why they do the things they do, their answers invariably fall under one of these categories: 1) they don’t have a choice (tuition is insane these days); 2) they simply love doing it and that’s reason enough; 3) they are “keeping their options open.” Increasingly I am hearing more of the third, perhaps because Stanford students live in a beckoning world with so many opportunities, they naturally want to make the most of them.
After all, since day one of freshman year we have been told — over and over to the point of becoming trite — to explore, to try new things, to be unafraid of reimagining yourself. It’s an uplifting message to start a starry-eyed, confused freshman on her exploration. I remember how it was when I first got to Stanford two years ago, feeling overwhelmed by the dizzying spread of everything on offer. Waltzing through activities fair convinced me I’d need three lifetimes, maybe more, to fully experience Stanford. And there was the unmistakable sense of optimism in the air, the eucalyptic scent of possibilities. Something was changing, and you felt like you could become anybody you wanted to be.
Or to be everything at once. Lenka’s song could well be the theme song of most Stanford students: “All I wanna be/ all I wanna be, oh/ All I wanna be is everything.”
The one word that would come to characterize most people’s freshman year — I said “most people” because there are always the Type-A kids who knew they wanted to be Mr. President the first day they learned to spell the word “ambition” — is “trying.” Trying out for a new club, trying a new class, trying to find the self, whatever that last one means.
And Stanford does give us a lot of room to try, and try again. Silicon Valley logic of “failing faster failing often” doesn’t apply; we live in what is probably the most protective bubble you could find on earth.
So, when I hear people wanting to “keep their options open,” I wonder why some of us are still working so hard to put off choosing, even in such a protected environment.
Two reasons come to mind. The first is quite understandable: you haven’t found something you’re willing to bet on, to commit to, something you believe in enough to dedicate your time to. In the meantime, keep exploring until you hit on something that’s really up your alley. Some people spend their whole life exploring, and with some luck you might.
The second reason confounds me: you think you have found your calling, but you want to hold off pursuing it because you need to “keep your options open” — options have become things that are good in and of themselves.
I met a friend at a recruitment event recently. Dressed up in a spiffy suit, he told me he wanted to be a consultant.
“What happened to your plan of becoming a teacher? I thought you were going to fix the broken education system!”
“Eventually, eventually. For now I will keep my options open.”
I was starting to understand that it is a matter of strategy — because, as the investment banker will tell you, putting all your eggs into one basket is much riskier than if you spread it out across different investment options.
“But life is not an investment decision, and you only live once!” I wanted to tell him, “How long are you going to postpone living up to what you believe in because of some nebulous ‘option’ in the offing?”
I held back; after all, there is really nothing wrong with wanting to be a consultant, but I walked away from the conversation feeling slightly perturbed. I wondered if being in an elite institution actually makes it harder to find your true calling, because saying that you want to be a great full-time mother, or the teacher who would make math fun for kids doesn’t seem that great of a return to a 60k per-annum investment.
We are probably better off with more options than fewer, but I also can’t help noticing how “keeping your options open” could, more than anything, betray an intense fear of failure. Instead of dedicating our efforts to doing something wholeheartedly, we make a series of tepid commitments and hope the “options” they yield come to something.
Some call this playing smart, but this could also be timidity: because we have never experienced anything other than success, our sense of self has been built around our ability to succeed, and the chance of failure is just terrifying. Instead of being committed to a personal vision, or an idea, we grow to be committed to “success” — which in our society has very standard definitions — and end up telling ourselves that our personal calling can wait.
Can it really? I am inclined to think that as we grow older, every decision we make starts narrowing our window of possibilities: if you decide, for instance, to be a pre-med today, the possibility of being a concert pianist 10 years down the road is, by the most optimistic gauge, slim.
Keeping your options open give you the illusion that we can be everything at once, but at some point you will need to make a choice. You can love Lenka’s song, but you can’t be everything at once: you have to decide who you are and who you are not.
And because every decision you make necessarily closes off doors, your true calling could well end up being outside your universe of possibilities, or a forgotten dream. It is in this way that Stanford, for all the possibilities it opens students to, can be paradoxically so limiting.
I do believe there is such a thing as a true calling, and it will find those who can say a hundred Noes for the sake of an overwhelming Yes. Sometimes what we need is not more options, but steadfast commitment and sheer perseverance to stand behind what we believe in.
The biggest tragedy, to my mind, is to graduate from Stanford with many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. And there is little chance we can figure out what we actually believe in if we spend all that time laying out exit routes before we even find an entrance.
Chi Ling, Chan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @callmechiling