Middle-school me would have scoffed at the idea of an undecided major, trusting in his youthful, enthusiastic naïveté to burn away the preposterous implication of uncertainty like the sun would a fictional vampire. By the start of high school, the same idea was like a distant plague—someone else’s problem, but not here just yet. Little did I know—at either point in time—that the undecided major would be tapping my shoulder, hissing self-doubt into my ear just a few very short years later, as I was applying to college. Whether I was languishing at my desk, chipping away at that personal statement, or strolling to the dining hall for lunch, the uncertainty would linger. Ever present. Dormant at times, indeed, but ready to rise and strike at any hint of provocation…
Every time some unwitting peer would pose that odiously innocent question, “What’re you planning to major in?” my heart would beat faster. Possibilities would whizz through my mind as it frantically flickered between books I’ve read recently and courses I’ve taken recently and miscellaneous ideas I’ve thought about recently… Too many. Even as I would briefly, but fondly, recall how Freakonomics had ignited my interest in the psychological aspect of Econ., I would shiver at the memory of Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, which once dampened my faith in the art industry. As I would be momentarily captivated once more by the opening line of Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”), the droning accounts of Michael Sandel’s Justice would nearly put me to sleep, for all their philosophical insight. And that was just the beginning, the mere surface of an abyssal amalgam resulting from years of seemingly futile searching—a list that was expansive as it was impenetrable. My mind would short-circuit even as my cultivated response to this interrogative act of aggression would emerge as a timid “I’m not quite sure…” Moreover, even as my meek reply would elicit a partly sympathetic, partly pitying, almost-imperceptibly disgusted “Oh,” the question itself would echo in my mind for the rest of the day like a song I couldn’t get rid of. Except I didn’t like this decidedly un-catchy song.
After all, indecisiveness is a sign of weakness, isn’t it? A sign that you don’t have the foresight to comprehend the idea of planning. And in this case, a sign that you don’t even know yourself well enough to know what kind of person you’ll be. These were the thoughts that tormented me day-in and day-out during the college application process; it was as if the concerns I should have been having over the past six or seven years had finally caught up with me, and things were looking ugly.
At this point , if you’re an undecided major, you’re probably wondering whether or not my words are meant to be comforting—and, if they are, why I’m so bad at being comforting. But worry no more! I will confide to you that I applied to colleges as an undecided major, graduated high school as an undecided major, and have just finished my first year of college at UChicago… as an undecided major. Under the right circumstances, you might discover—like I have—that being undecided can be a blessing (situationally, of course)! In my limited experience, while there exist those lost souls such as you or I that haven’t yet decided on a major, there also exist others who were once so certain of their future path, but upon treading it, found it riddled with potholes.
At the end of the school year this year, I was getting dinner with a friend (whom I had known since sophomore year of high school)—but something was off. Even as were strolling from the dining commons to the tables outside, I found myself having to slow down to match his pace; he, uncharacteristically, seemed to be dragging his feet, as if to draw out this dinner—this calm before the storm, this beacon of light penetrating the arduous storm of exam week—for as long as possible. A brisk wind cut through Hutchinson Courtyard—a vestigial remnant of Chicago’s harsh winter—but spring was settling in, and one could almost forget about the exam schedules hiding within closed laptops. Suddenly, I could tell that this brief intermission was just the thing he—this friend of mine who was supremely confident both academically and socially (everything I’m not)—sorely needed. You see, at the beginning of the year (and perhaps before then), he had been adamant on pursuing Business Econ.; now, having spent three consecutive quarters in the throes of introductory courses required for the major (as well as the simultaneous final paper and exam for the last of these), he seemed to be implying a different story through his tired posture, complexion, and inflection. I asked him about it. And when he verified with his words what I thought I observed, my initial feeling was, shamefully, not sympathy.
It was relief.
Relief at being undecided! Unprecedentedly, irrationally, I felt grateful for and even empowered by my indecisiveness! Because my friend (whom I comforted to the best of my ability after this revelation) had fallen into a trap that I felt I was, for now, immune to. It was the trap of expectation—a concept that, in my opinion, drives not only the decision to pick a major, but other career-related—or even generally important—decisions. Expectation, whether it be others’, or your own, or even socially-normative (as is perceived by you, at least) can chart your course into the future in a very reassuring manner. But while powerful, while stabilizing, expectation can be a trap that constricts.
Expectation can lure you sweetly down a path and, before you even realize it (but far after the point of no return) surround it with a barbed wire fence—and you’re not leaving without getting cut. For me, with this realization came the understanding—understanding the importance of having multiple possible paths in order to prevent such a calamity. And perhaps the current inability to commit wholeheartedly to one of them (due to the various blessings of each), rather than complete blindness to any path before you, is what results in indecisiveness—something distinct from outright uncertainty.
The college application process granted me inklings of these insights through months and months of active self-reflecting, weighing options, and exploring my academic identity like I hadn’t before; I began exploring potential courses across colleges in Philosophy, English Literature, and Visual Art. However, I had never understood the gravity of this bittersweet concept of constructive indecisiveness before actually getting to college, and even in just the first year, I have been able to acquire hints of more and more possibilities through continuous, rigorous exploration of both my environment and my self.
Right now, I’m just waiting actively—exploring, learning, discovering things about each possibility, discovering new possibilities, yes, but waiting all the same. Fulfilling the general education requirement first (with its classes in a large but contained variety of core subjects) allows me to do just that; indeed, every single experience so far, good or bad, has represented progress in my process of elimination. Understanding how these subjects are taught at my particular school, comprehending both the holistic scope of the subject and specific areas of personal interest, accustoming myself to the unique challenges and rewards of each subject: each of these steps (among many others that I have kept in mind thus far) undoubtedly helps to guide my reflection toward (if not immediately to) a more informed decision. Moreover, on these academic journeys (while I’m simultaneously clearing up further quarters to home in on specific areas of study) I’m bound to find something extraordinary to finally tip the scales. And if that’s not an exciting prospect, I don’t know what is!
Until then, of course, I will tentatively—and proudly—declare myself ‘Undecided,’ whenever asked the question I once so dreaded.
Because although I am undecided, I’m also deciding.
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By Calvin Cheong