Like many of my peers, I have been indoctrinated to believe that there are linear steps to a successful life, starting with high school and moving straight up into adulthood: get this ACT score, get these AP scores, apply to safeties-matches-reaches, pick a major [or two, or three], work these internships, participate in these organizations, build your resume, apply to grad programs / enter the job market – the list is formulaic. Moreover, at a school like Vanderbilt, it is almost universally accepted as law.
My senior friends confirm this: there is incredible pressure to have direction. They are all supposed to know their next step: this immersion program, that science lab, this medical institute, that law school. They are all supposed to be applying for Teach for America, the Peace Corps, Fulbrights and fellowships. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone tell me that they’re planning to take a year off to waitress, or roadtrip, or bum around in Europe. If you’re not ascending, you must be descending.
Double Helix, the autobiographical account of Watson’s discovery of DNA’s structure, challenges this entirely. Watson openly admits his initial blasé treatment of heavy science; he avoided difficult science classes at his alma mater, attended scientific conventions without actually understanding any of the lectures, and was more intent on enjoying himself socially than progressing academically. In fact, he essentially loafs around in Copenhagen on federal dollars from 1950-1951, despite having no real passion for or comprehension of his work.
Obviously, this changes when he finally finds his niche and develops a skill set on his own – but until that point in the book I was vacillating wildly between envy and incredulity, reading his calm retelling of that period. Watson is unconcerned with his ambling aimlessness, whereas I feel that in his shoes I would have been steeped in panic – what next? Was I wasting my time, or my mentor’s time, or my money? Where was I planning to go next? Should I be committing more time to my studies? Should I pursue a different degree? What was I doing with my life? Was this my real calling? or should I start over?
This is called the quarter-life crisis; the crippling self-doubt of rising adults who “don’t know what they want to do with their lives.”
And yet Watson seemed at peace.
I set the book down rather disgruntled… and went off to a Vanderbilt Class of 2013 networking brunch on Sunday, meant to connect us strapping young juniors to Dore alumni out in their respective fields. Those on the front lines, so to speak.
I’ll admit it freely; it was fascinating to hear the curvatures of their career paths. One alum admitted to “more temp work than I care to remember.” Another said they’d just happened to know the right person at the right time. The gentleman I was next to, a genuinely helpful man who spoke to me about the ethics of extended networking, leaned in close to me and said (and this is roughly paraphrased, but you get the idea): “Look around you. These students all think they know exactly what they’re doing for the next ten years… but if you get back in touch with them in ten years, very few of them will have actually followed that path. You really have to be flexible.”
In fact, nobody I spoke to at that brunch had had a linear career path. Some had picked up new careers while moving around the country with a spouse. Some had taken ten years off before going back to grad school. One notable example graduated with an English major and gone into construction (it’s actually rather interesting; he heads design and maintenance of a major metropolitan museum now, which seems to be a cool connective thread).
I left that alumni brunch thinking that maybe Watson had the right attitude after all. The most successful people in the room had learned to roll with the punches, just as Watson did for his first few years out of undergrad.
The moral of this story is that flexibility pays. Hey, you might even win a Nobel prize.