Many years ago when I learned that the shortest distance between two points is always a straight line, I had no idea that my strongest use for that tidbit of knowledge would be getting to my 8:30 a.m. Japanese class on time. As someone who gets around on foot on campus, I’ve learned to optimize my regular routes so that I don’t spend too much time in transit. On the first few days of the quarter, my daily walk from my dorm in Lagunita Court to Building 200 in the far corner of the main quad was around 15 minutes long. However, having optimized my route by making my path to class as direct as possible, I’m now able to clock 10 minute times and get an extra five minutes of sleep each morning.
A popular approach to getting the optimal college experience is somewhat similar to my walk to Japanese class. First, figure out the major you would like to pursue, then complete it in the fastest, most efficient way so that you will be done in the shortest possible time. However, the best college path for a student within the broader context of their life journey is not necessarily the shortest one.
In general, life isn’t neatly time delineated like a typical school day, but it can sometimes feel as though if we are not on the fastest route, we will end up being late and missing out. The difference between the path of a person’s life and the path to my class is that my walk to class has a single defined endpoint, whereas a priori, life journeys do not. There is no way to trek a straight line life path if you’re not sure where you are going. This lack of predictive ability is a source of frustration and anxiety for many Stanford students when it comes to mapping out their college journeys. Planning a quarter, major or four-year plan can be hard when you are not sure what the destination that you are working towards looks like. This is compounded by the fact that the variables — happiness, time, positive social impact, community, knowledge, financial stability — that you may choose to optimize for are sometimes contradictory, and their relative importance for an individual person may be highly fluid across time.
Some algorithms I’ve learned in my classes this quarter offer nice parallels to possible approaches one may take to resolve the conundrum of picking the right path to traverse in college, which is just one part of the larger labyrinth that is life. The first, a depth-first search, involves trying something out and delving straight in until you figure out that you don’t like it, backtracking, then trying out something else. In real life, this could look like starting out as a chemistry major, discovering a latent love for biology combined with a growing distaste for studying reactions and then switching departments sophomore spring. The second, a breadth-first search, involves reaching out into as many paths as possible simultaneously until you find what you are looking for. This is analogous to a student who takes on 20-unit workloads each quarter in their first few years to try out as many different fields as possible before concluding that being a chemistry major is the right choice.
While these algorithms work well in the programming world, their real-life parallels can be difficult to live through. Spending multiple quarters learning about a subject just to discover that you no longer want to pursue it can be disheartening. Juggling other aspects of your life with a 20-unit workload can be tough. When it seems as though those around you have magically found the right major, the time invested in discovery and searching can feel like wasting time on a winding path rather than traveling in a straight line. However, if we take a few other factors into consideration, we will find that this is not necessarily the case. The optimum path is not always the shortest one.
Firstly, as I hinted at earlier, not everyone optimizes for the same thing. Picking a major in the first week of freshman year, then graduating in three years, is a radically different journey from exploring different majors, declaring in junior year and graduating a quarter or two later than expected. Though they differ, both are equally valid — the one that a person picks depends on the type of experience that the person is optimizing for. When I first arrived at Stanford, I heard many stories of students wrapping up in three years and going on to work in amazing companies in the industry (or forming companies of their own) after graduating. These are students who chose to optimize for time. However, I have met many other students who weighed other factors as higher priorities than time. Some of these students have taken quarters off for various reasons such as working on personal or academic projects, spending time on self-care and health-related reasons. These students have also gone on to do phenomenal work in their respective fields and benefited significantly from the time that they spent off-campus. Unforeseen and unavoidable obstacles may also cause students to graduate later than expected. Not everyone chooses to or is able to optimize for time when completing college, and that is okay.
Secondly, there is no single defined optimum end goal in life for an individual to strive for. There are multiple trajectories and landing points that can lead to self-actualization, so there are multiple right paths, no matter what variables you choose to optimize for. A few years before coming to Stanford, I was convinced that the career that I would pursue was economics. However, a year or so before graduating from high school, I decided that I wanted to explore computer science and declared it as my major while still taking economics classes to explore my interest in the subject. Although I enjoy my computer science classes, I also thoroughly enjoy the economics classes that I have taken here. I am sure that had I not decided to switch to computer science, I would be equally happy and fulfilled studying economics. I would like to use the career I choose to be a medium through which I have a positive impact on people, and pursuing either field would be a viable way to achieve that.
Lastly, although it may feel that committing to a major now can block the possibility of finding your true fit, this is rarely the case. Many of the conversations I have had with professors and past graduates who have long ago navigated the college system is indicative of this. Your potential career is rarely significantly limited by what you chose to study now because there is always space to continue learning in the future. I had an economics lecturer some quarters ago who started out studying theater in college, then decided to change his trajectory, who now teaches intermediate microeconomics at Stanford. It is rarely truly too late to pursue an academic area that you find appealing.
While in the throes of a rigorous college system like Stanford, it can feel as though you always need to be in a rush to find your optimum path. However, it is important to keep in mind that the time spent on searching and self-discovery has intrinsic value, and is not time wasted.
Contact Ruth-Ann Armstrong at ruthanna ‘at’ stanford.edu.