I felt a pleasant warmth as I skied down the side of a Pennsylvania mountain, gliding to a stop at the bottom of the slope as my dad pulled up behind me. Together we waited in a short line and then boarded a slow-moving chairlift. As it carried us up the side of the mountain, we chatted about our past run and took in the pristine snow-covered sights.
“So, which run do you want to do next?” my dad asked.
“I don’t care,” I replied. “You can choose.”
“But which run is your favorite so far?”
“I don’t know, they’re all pretty good,” I said. As long as we continued skiing, I truly had no preference which run we did next.
“I know they’re all good, but which ones were your favorite?” he pressed.
In an attempt to appease him and buy myself some time, I listed the runs we’d been on, adding comments on steepness and iciness whenever I could. Still, I ended by saying that I had no overall favorite.
At this my dad became agitated. “It’s not a life or death decision here. Can’t you just pick one?” Irritation singed his voice.
I felt my eyes roll, and I begged him to drop the issue, which he did. Why couldn’t I just answer the question, pick a slope, make a decision?
This type of interaction between us is not uncommon. For example, whenever I tell him that I don’t care what we eat for dinner he rolls his eyes and replies, “Really? You have no preference what you eat?”
As you can probably tell, I am extremely indecisive. This trait has been with me for as long as I can remember. During elementary school playdates, my friend and I would pick out of a hat to determine which game or activity we would embark on because I was unable to decide on one myself. When it comes to movies, I’m happy to let my fellow movie-watchers pick the film. What do I want for my birthday? I have no idea, anything’s fine, really!
Part of this indecisiveness stems from the fact that, often, I genuinely have no preference. This isn’t to say that I have no particular tastes or inclinations; I have favorite TV shows and musical artists, restaurants and candies. But when it comes to minor decisions, the details don’t matter as long as the people I care about are involved. My father and sister have both always been very eager and willing to make decisions, which has meant that I very often don’t have to.
I think my hesitancy also arises from the fact that I like to make others happy. I may not have much of a preference between Chinese or Mexican food, but if one is going to make my friend happier, then that becomes the best option in my eyes. On the mountain that day, the next run made absolutely no difference to me, but perhaps it would make a difference to my dad. Perhaps only one run would make him happy. I feel this pressure whenever the decisions I make affect other people. I don’t want to let them down, and it scares me that my choice can affect other people for the worse. This line of reasoning makes every choice look bigger than it is and requires that each option be weighed extremely carefully.
This pattern of drawn-out and reluctant decision-making has made itself prevalent in my college life. Princeton is an amazing place, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. There are countless academic and extracurricular opportunities, and it can be an exceedingly daunting task to determine which ones I want to take advantage of. It becomes a form of paralysis—not just a reluctance to make decisions but a true powerlessness to do so.
I want to make the absolute most of my time here. I want to take the best classes, participate in activities, find my passion, discover the major that suits me, find the right future job, and I want to give back to the world; I’ve been given the gift of attending Princeton and I need to use it to make some sort of worthwhile impact. If this sounds like a lot of pressure, imagine the burden of actually living with this stress.
With these hopes and aspirations and the immense pressure comes the fear of making the wrong choice. With this mindset, so many decisions—which classes to take, which extracurriculars to get involved in, how to spend my summers—grow in size, becoming giant, daunting tasks that are impossible to complete perfectly. Each decision becomes one that will define my future, and I therefore need to choose incredibly wisely in every situation.
As stressful as these feelings are, I do think being indecisive has some benefits. I’ve become well-versed in weighing pros and cons. I’m forced often to think of my future, my hopes and ambitions. I tend to be prepared for a variety of circumstances and outcomes. And I consider others often in my thinking. My hesitancy to make choices is a deeply rooted element of my identity and, as cliché as it may sound, has made me who I am and shaped my life thus far.
Despite these benefits, I am unquestionably jealous of my more decisive friends. Most of my friends at Princeton have hopes and ambitions similar to mine, but many of them are able to make decisions swiftly and stand firmly by their choices. They seem less plagued by questions and doubts; they don’t seem to feel immense pressure in every choice they make. Whether this is how they actually feel or just my distorted view, when I’m vacillating between option A and option B, they’ve already made three decisions, giving me the illusion that the Princeton experience, and life in general, is easier for them. By contrast, my indecision makes seemingly simple tasks stressful and burdensome.
In the fall, when class registration loomed closer and closer, I spent weeks searching and analyzing the course offerings website, making charts and lists of various majors, classes, and distribution requirements. I consulted my RCA, my parents, my dean of studies. Again and again I was told that it was great that I was thinking so thoroughly about these things, but that I really didn’t need to be worried about planning the rest of my life during freshman fall.
Slowly, these assurances wove their way into my mind and I began to stress less. I still had occasional fits of anxiety, but I realized that I’d done what I could: I’d thought about the options and my future, researched what I could, and listened to my intuition. And early on a December morning, I made the best decisions I could: I selected classes that interested me and would help me explore various majors.
Improving my decision-making skills is an ongoing project, and I know that it will not be an easy or immediate victory. There are times, like on the chairlift with my dad, when I genuinely do not understand why I cannot make the decision at hand. Though I’m far from having it all figured out, I’ve made some progress in understanding from where my indecisiveness originates. Fear is a huge driver of my inability to confidently and quickly make decisions. I fear harming others, and I don’t want to make the wrong choice or let anyone down, friends, family, or myself. I fear messing up the future by making the wrong decision in the present.
I’ve also begun to realize that some of these fears are simply beyond my control. It’s not in my power or abilities to make everyone happy. As long as I consider those around me and reflect before making decisions, my choices will most likely not destroy the lives of friends and family. It’s also acceptable for me not to know what my future path will be. It is impossible to know how each decision I make, minor or major, will affect my life. It is unfair of me to require that I analyze each choice as thoroughly as possible, to demand that I do the impossible by predicting the future.
My inability to figure out the future does not make me inadequate or inferior; it makes me exactly like everyone else, like every other student here who is similarly trying to figure out his or her life one step at a time (whether they’re as reluctant to make choices as I am or swift, resolute decision-makers). And that’s the best I can do: take everything one step at a time. I cannot pinpoint which options will lay out the perfect path at my feet, but I can think carefully and make the decision that makes the most sense for my life at that particular moment. I think that is the best all of us can do. And I’m beginning to realize that there is nothing wrong with that.