One of the most interesting parts of working with college students is the palpable potential of a future unknown. Anticipation of what is still to come is often innate in many students seeking their liberal arts and professional degrees. With that can come a great deal of uncertainty, but also there are wonderful opportunities to use decisions for the realization of that unknown future. Yet, I have noticed sometimes students seek a “solution” to hard decisions by finding a way to say yes to everything. They defer decision-making for as long as they can. And I have noticed that my own skepticism regarding this tendency to try to “do it all” has become stronger over the years, leading me to wonder if I should take a more firm stance, pushing them to make the hard choices.
In working with students, I often use a chapter from Brian J. Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition. The first chapter highlights a student Mahan refers to as Pam. Pam has gotten into Yale Law School and the Peace Corps and is deciding which path to take. Ultimately Pam decides to decline Yale Law School and accept the Peace Corps for her first chapter outside of college. Mahan uses this thought experiment to reflect on how challenging it can be to reject the prestigious, shiny opportunities in favor of more authentic, humble, and service-minded opportunities. Often, when I look at Pam’s example with students, they ask, “Why doesn’t Pam just defer?”
Defer Yale Law School? Why not, indeed? Deferment provides a potential elegant solution of being able to do both! Let’s presume that Pam could defer Yale Law School for two years (probably not an option) and commit to the Peace Corps only to return to her trajectory towards the JD upon her return. On the one hand, it sounds good. Trying to find a way to be the protagonist in more than one self-story is a wonderful embrace of the non-linearity of life, something I encourage as much as possible. Acknowledging that authenticity and pursuing a life of purpose may take you in many directions seems healthy, adventurous, and open.
So why do I increasingly have such a visceral reaction to reject this idea of deferment?
Ruth Chang, Professor and Chair of Jurisprudence at the University of Oxford and a philosopher who is well known for her work on decision-making, talks about hard decisions as an opportunity to be the author of one’s own life.
I submit that to pursue both options is almost like opting to not decide and thus notactually writing your own story. To go into the Peace Corps presuming your life trajectory will not be altered in any way is almost the same as not going into the Peace Corps at all. To presume that one would not have new interests, new communities, new loves, and new relationships that might pull one in new directions is quite a presumption. If Pam were to arrange a deferment of some kind, not only would she be setting herself up to miss out on the greatest impact the Peace Corps may offer, but she may not serve and commit to the community to the greatest extent she can, knowing that she’ll be back on the predetermined track a little later.
Vocation requires commitment. To chart a winding path for the sake of “doing it all” assumes that throughout all those turns you essentially will be the same, unchanged, person. In fact, it’s not winding at all if you are going out of your way to not decide on choices. It’s linear, unchanging, unaffected.
This reflection is not designed to be advice-giving for everyone navigating whether to go into the Peace Corps or Yale Law School. Nevertheless, for the five of you out there: you’re welcome. More broadly, this is about the tendency to defer decisions in order to experience all life has to offer. There is a FOMO (fear of missing out) component to this. I don’t want to miss the Peace Corps, even though I know I really want to go to law school! Other examples of this tendency can be seen in the students who have numerous commitments under their name in their email signature. We have amazing students who do incredible things. Nonetheless, I also wonder about how so many commitments and positions and roles play out in an authentic full life. I don’t fault students for this, given the positive reinforcement for “doing it all” and the challenge I fully resonate with in not knowing what happens when a door is closed. Nevertheless, I have learned that when all the doors are open I may miss out even more. How do we help students recognize when their FOMO and their desire to find a way to squeeze everything in, rather than discern an answer to a hard choice, is actually preventing them from fully experiencing life?
When I used to have this conversation about Mahan’s text and the deferment idea would come up, I would listen carefully and reflect back what I was hearing. But recently, I’ve started doing something different. I’ve started anticipating the idea of deferment and offering a clear opinion about encouraging students to self-author their decisions. In a sense, I’ve started exercising my voice.
Taking the risk of offering this perspective comes with some concerns: am I making assumptions, am I not hearing their story, am I offering advice and “fixing it” rather than holding the space…? But if my role is to be the convener of vocational reflection, I can’t both be present and absent. I have to make some hard choices as well. Am I here to engage or here to observe? I think one way to help students be the self-authors of their lives when facing all the untapped potential is to encourage them, nurture them, and indeed challenge them to make sure every “yes” they say illuminates the implicated “no’s” that must follow. Decisions are opportunities to hone an intentional, meaningful life course. As a mentor, I have made the decision to encourage as many students as possible not to defer their life, but to make their choices and wrestle with the consequences. Just like our students, I will succeed and struggle with this decision at different points, but certainly part of the task is to make the decision in the first place!
Daniel Meyers is the Director of the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University. He was ordained in the United Church of Christ and has served in his current role at Butler since 2015. With a team of colleagues and students, Daniel provides support to religious life communities on campus, promotes vocational reflection within and beyond the curriculum, furthers interfaith engagement on campus, supports faculty and staff in their vocational and professional development, and serves as part of the campus wellness resources.