When I was a junior in high school, I received a LOT of college mail. Flyers, cards, postcards, information packets, you name it. I kept every piece I received in a big cardboard box next to my bed, and as I went through my college search, I picked out the pieces I liked from the schools I was considering. There was a personality test, a map of all the coffee shops on one school’s campus, and a square mailer with the word “Doubt” printed in big, yellow capital letters on the front.
The mailer said “Embrace the Power of Doubt,” which sixteen-year-old me thought was a stupid way to market a university, and an even more misguided piece of advice for someone trying to figure out their comprehensive life plan.
Why should we try to embrace doubt when that’s the thing we’re trying to erase? What’s the point of choosing a college if not to erase doubt about your future? We want direction. We want answers. We want certainty. Yes or no answers.
Doubt is unproductive. Doubt is weakness, emotionality creeping into rational decision making. It’s disruptive to any good process. So why are we being told to embrace it?
If you haven’t guessed already, the much-maligned mailer came from my future alma mater, Rochester.
I didn’t understand the messaging until the end of my first year here. In my first year, I had prescribed myself a path to greatness: English major, math minor, political science cluster. English honors thesis, graduation, job. I had pursued my path diligently through my first year, but was somehow…unsatisfied. I had told myself that this was the life I’d be happy with and that I was yes, happy being part of it. I hadn’t doubted my sixteen-year old brain’s decision making, or seventeen-year old me, or eighteen-year old me, for that matter.
I wasn’t happy. I felt that I was missing out on some of my potential, that I was holding myself back socially because I was doing what I was “supposed to”, that I hadn’t stopped to consider my feelings on my own life.
So I started over.
In my sophomore year at Rochester, I upended my life. I added a second major, started taking Spanish classes again, which I had been studying for five years prior to college, I got involved with theatre, and I found the greatest friends I could have asked for while doing it. I felt like a new person, and I barrelled into my life full force.
My path is no longer as clear as it was when I came into college. I’ll be honest about that. I have a vision for what I want my life to be in twenty years, but it’s not clear what I’ll be doing two years from now to make that happen. All I know is that I have options.
These days, I juggle two majors that make me happy: theatre and business, a minor in Spanish, a certificate in literary translation studies (whose capstone I’m working on now), and a serendipitous cluster in math. I work three jobs, and am heavily involved in three student groups as well. It’s a lot, but each part of my new “plan” was carefully chosen because they made me happy. I find strange connections between disciplines all the time, and new friends in whatever I’m doing.
I now realize the power of doubt. It’s not something you’d normally think of as positive, but it has the power to change lives. Education is a constant process of re-evaluation of your own morals, your own goals, and your own assumptions. If we do not doubt what we’ve been taught, how are we supposed to make any change to what is wrong? It’s through processing doubt and taking action that we can improve the world around us, and ourselves.
I still carry doubt with me every day. I doubt if what I’m doing will get me closer to my ultimate goals. I doubt if I’m using my time as effectively as I could be, or if I’m truly ready to be the person I want to be after graduation. It’s a lot of doubt to carry, but it’s healthy. It keeps me sharp, and reminds me to act intentionally in whatever I do. College is where we find out who we are, and if we do not doubt what we’ve been telling ourselves, or what others have told us about ourselves, we will never be free to evolve.