Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Most Important Choice That Never Mattered

“Eleanor, pay attention. This is a very important decision. You need to figure out a career because you’ll have to support yourself,” he said, ball point pen in one hand, and a yellow memo pad full of numbers and lists resting safely under the other.
“Dad, I know, I get it.”
“Because you know, you can’t count on someone else to support you. Don’t plan on getting married straight out of college. It won’t work out that way.”
“Wait, how do you know that?”
“Well, it’s…I mean. It’s you.”
And then there was silence. Oh right, I forgot. College mattered because…it’s me.

Choosing a university was the most important decision I’d ever make. That’s what they said, wasn’t it? They – my parents, my teachers, my SAT prep course directors. The paid actor for the community college advertisement on television that my father said I’d end up like if I slept through one more Algebra II quiz. It was meant to be the springboard in to the rest of my life, and for some reason, at seventeen years old, I was supposed to know which pommel horse to aim at.

And it’s true, choosing a college was singularly the most significant decision I’ve ever made. It just didn’t actually matter.  

See, I chose to go to a private digital arts school, and that was, well, interesting. I could have chosen to major in English at a state school, or study theater at a liberal arts college, and I wouldn’t have been any better or worse off for it. The world needs all kinds of people, and our entire existence, however short it may be, is purposed in being a necessary cog in the universe. The rule is: I am useful because I contribute. And yet, there exist an infinite number of ways a person can be useful.

No, the real lesson, the real thing of significance here is not the choice of college; it is rather the art of learning to choose.

It’s been five years since I graduated with my Bachelors of Whatever, and I have to laugh at how completely under qualified I was to make any kind of life choice at seventeen years old. You know what was important to me when I was seventeen? Studded belts and the Vans Warped Tour. I was more concerned with keeping my wristbands from concerts intact than in collegiate admission forms. In retrospect, I wouldn’t trust seventeen year old me with choosing a shampoo, let alone defining a career path. And yet, that’s how it goes. I coasted through grade school, stole money from my brother’s dresser, and then, like a light switch, I chose the rest of my life. 

When I was seventeen, I was asked to make a seemingly impossible, entirely implausible decision with little or no substantial evidence to base it on. The responsible adults in my life looked at me, with an appropriate amount of skepticism, and said, “pick one thing.” 

I returned the skeptical look and said, “Sure. Later. Can I have twenty bucks?”

And after I got back from the mall, or the movies, or getting kicked out of the plant store bounce house, I sat at my desk and flipped to the first page of that Greater-Houston-Area-Phonebook-sized list of United States colleges, and began to choose. 

And after I woke up from my impromptu nap on page two, I updated the song on my MySpace page, and lied to my mom about my homework.

And somewhere in there, I scraped together a list.

Now, choosing a college is one of the first multi-level choices we make in our lives. First, there’s the list of schools that we could imagine attending for four years with minimal suffering. Then we visit a few campuses, get a feel for “student life” as it pertains to our own interests and hobbies, and narrow down the list further. I often think of this process as a parallel to my current on-going search for a life partner. First I survey a list of potential date candidates, then I get a feel for what type of crazy I’m in for, and I move on from there.

This is when we’ve reached another shining moment for life lessons: the counter-choice. After spending hours, maybe even weeks, of debating the infinite opportunities of the future, I was given the chance to ask my choices to choose me back. 

What the hell kind of system is this? It’s as if I looked at the line of guys down the bar; I picked the ones I thought looked the least like serial killers, and I went on a date with each one of them. Now I get to submit a formal request for another date, and wait for one, or any of them to call? That’s a whole bushel of crap, and here’s why: I did all the legwork. I looked at the infinite number of jobs that could not make me want to hang myself, and then I cross referenced the hundreds of colleges that offered degrees that would help me get those jobs. Then I thought about a bunch of other crap, and I missed not one, but TWO Yellowcard shows because of it. TWO. Now you have the audacity to tell me that I have to apply to be accepted by this stupid school? Yeah, no thanks. I’ll pass.

And that’s the beauty of this disastrous process. It happens at a time in life when I had to sit through that experience because there were people in charge of me and they forced me to do it. So now when I submit my formal request for a date, I’m not afraid to do it, and also prepared to understand the concept of getting straight up RE-JECTED. Apparently applying for college made me quite good at getting stood up.

Thanks, College. 

Eventually, I got a couple calls. I picked a school, and that was that. The choice was made, and I marched ahead in my life as I always had, making the best out of where I was when I was there. The school, the process, its significance is all relative, really. The value I really walked away with was learning to decide. 

The aftermath has simply worked itself out.

Don’t get me wrong, I cried a lot. I cried the first time I realized that I couldn’t just go home to do laundry or hide out from a bad day like most of my other friends. I cried when my full-time job and full-time school schedule made me a full-time smoker and a no-time sleeper. I cried when I figured out that college was the easy part because then I had to get a job in the middle of a recession in one of the most competitive industries imaginable. But that’s the thing about crying: it happens for ten minutes, for an hour, for a couple weeks, and then it’s done and you’re still alive and in the same spot. You’re just splotchier. 

Every single day, we make dozens of decisions. Sometimes we make choices without even processing the options at hand. I’m not sure how, though I’m inclined to blame Sesame Street, but at some point everyone got it in his/her head that some decisions needed to be made irrevocably, or at least, made correctly in one try. Like the city he lived in. Like who she fell in love with. Like the college she chose. And that’s absurd. 

It’s absurd because the world is constantly shifting and changing, and so am I. It’s not important what I wanted to do or where I wanted to live when I was seventeen – what’s important is that I chose a path and I followed through. There’s no law in the rules of being a person that says the follow through is eternal. I didn’t grow as a person because of the lessons I learned in school; I grew as a person because of the lessons I learned in the act of committing to a choice. 

At this juncture in my life, I am twenty-five, choosing to work in the field I studied in the college I chose when I was seventeen. I am twenty-five, choosing to reside in California, a state I chose to move to when I was seventeen. On my twenty-sixth birthday, I might wake up and decide to apprentice in a pastry shop in France. It could happen, you don’t know. And if I choose to do that, and I get my work visa and sell most of my possessions and move across nine time zones, and I absolutely hate pastries and the French, that’s okay. It, of course, would not be IMMEDIATELY okay. Before we hit “okay,” it would bring me back to that week-long cry fest I mentioned. But after the crying was done, I would still be alive, and I would still be in the same spot. 

Just as easily or painstakingly as choosing to move to California or becoming a French pastry chef, I could choose anything else. The notion of paths rather than answers is the ultimate freeing concept. As humans, we are less like trains on predetermined tracks, but rather more like rivers cutting through new landscape. The river is going where it needs to go; how it gets there is of no consequence. The only thing that matters is that the river continues to make progress. 

And the only way the river goes anywhere is by feeling it out, and having a little bit of faith in gravity.


  1. Seriously? You lied to me about your homework? How could I have missed that? Seriously! You are determined to excel in each and every aspect of your life and THAT is your best choice! 25 year old you is so much wiser and that is because whether or not it was easy, hard, right or wrong, you made choices and you learned from them! Great piece!

  2. I love it when my mum comments on one of my essays, especially after a really self-deprecating one, and she says something like, "Don't worry, your mum loves you anyway." I feel like writing back, "Mum, stop reading my DIARY!"
    Eleanor, I'm glad that the river has made you grumpy, and I'm glad that it has made you a good writer. I look forward to hearing of your future exploits, whether you are a French pastry chef or a nanny in Botswana.
    My new word of the day: "splotchier."

  3. Good stuff. Your blog makes me realize how bad the blog posts I haven't even published yet are and that I should go delete them all now before anyone finds them.

    And now I'm just imagining TheBayAreaBrit saying "splotchier" and laughing, and then doing it again, and again...etc.