My dad’s perfect dad joke is a snap. Every time we walk out the automatic doors of a grocery store, he snaps his fingers right before they slide open. “See,” he always says. “It opened because I snapped.”
Of course, I would always correct him—a motion sensor, not his snap, opened the door. “No no no. It’s all in the snap,” he would argue, laughing at my frustration. It’s stuck: Even as a 19-year-old, I can’t exit sensor doors without making my own tiny, imperceptible snap.
There was a type of illusory control in that snap—it meant that we were formidable enough to shatter barriers with just the snap of our fingers. My dad’s “magic” represented a clear path: Control begets achievement. At Georgetown, where so much of who students are hinges on accomplishment, we do not know success under any other name than control.
Georgetown students are always “succeeding”—new internships at prestigious institutions, paid jobs relevant to their course of study, a research fellowship abroad, acceptances to graduate school at Harvard or Yale. I love watching my friends achieve, but I also see how much work it takes. And I have to ask myself: Am I working towards things I really want, or things that will allow me to control my success?
When I was a high school senior applying for college, I was often told to take a deep breath, to calm down. I refused—I was so passionate about my goals to win a speech tournament, to be at the top of my class, to attend Georgetown. I also told myself that once I got into college, then I’d relax. I wouldn’t care so much about my GPA, I wouldn’t worry so much about my control.
But that’s not what happened.
I got to Georgetown, and right from the beginning, I felt—yet again—the need to prove myself. Just like in high school, I was pressured to be the smartest, the most accomplished, the most involved in on-campus activities. I forgot my vow from the end of high school to calm down just a little bit and enjoy life. Only one semester into college I realized that my idea of accomplishment, an idea based on being more successful than everyone around me, just is not sustainable.
Up until about the age 18, success is defined by the structure around us. One of family, education, and maybe a high school club or sport. But after that, our worlds become increasingly uncontrollable. After that, we get to choose what our values are, and to define the measure of what we consider success.
Georgetown, however, has a way of minimizing a student’s willingness to take risks that redefine success from the moment they walk onto campus. It is written into every aspect of Georgetown life, the organizations that are more valuable than others, the areas of study that will guarantee a job in the U.S. government. Suddenly, just after we were introduced to the freedom of choice, we yearn for the control of high school once more, when, for many of us, the fundamental goal was simply to get accepted into a good university. Many of us then conclude that medical school, law school, or any kind of distinctly clear path after graduation are the only options worthy of pursuit. They are desires easily explained to a parent or other well-meaning adult, they offer a sense of controlled direction.
Being a college student or recent graduate is all about taking risks and figuring it out. As much of a control freak I am, I am beginning to resent questions that ask, “What do you want to do with that course later on?” or “How will this be applicable to your career?” as if these were questions with finite, static answers. I like to plan ahead, and trust me, you should see my Google calendar of internship deadlines and coffee chats to attend. But this mentality—that a specific course today must translate into a job tomorrow—is ridiculous.
I do not want to fall into a trap where looking successful is my priority, where I must promise control. I do not want to trade my empathy for education, or understanding for knowledge. I want to seek inspiration more than accolades. I never want myself or any other Georgetown student to assume that our education or post-college opportunities in any way place us above the world.
If I am learning anything from Georgetown, it is that a class, a sport, a journal entry, a sojourn through the woods, is only a waste of time if I refuse to be inspired by it. I do not want to count my personal goals and tiny victories as not worth pursuing, simply because a future employer probably won’t be searching for an employee who loves the outdoors and rock climbing. Georgetown students only see something of value if it can be placed on a resumé, so we decide that our other passions and hobbies can never count as success.
When Georgetown students get rejected from an internship or job, the automatic reaction is one of retreat: becoming quiet about dreams, beginning to doubt that the path is even worth pursuing. We live in a microculture where we cannot wait to talk about our victories, but struggle to embrace our failures. We forget that success is never guaranteed, and that rejections are not just normal, they are important to the process.
Finding the “right path” also requires something far outside the limits of control—serendipity. And that’s a terrifying thought. Determination feels comparatively easy. I can work every day as hard as I possibly can to create new opportunities for myself, but having to leave things up to the universe is far more daunting.
One of my first encounters with the word was in a high school classroom, where one of my teachers often spoke of “serendipity.” Though just a word, it scared me. The idea that things could just “happen,” and lead you to your path made me feel small in a world so full of random encounters. It makes me consider all the people I had become friends with by chance, and the could-be relationships that I never followed up on. But now that I am outside that classroom where every minute of my day was guided, I find the lack of control serendipity offers rather freeing. It lets me dream, rather than panic about a future not yet my own. It means I stop doubting myself for what could be, and enjoy what is. It lets me learn poetry because I find it beautiful and nothing more.
I want to learn a new language even if I never have a need for it. I want to learn to play music, even though I am sure it will never be a career asset. To learn philosophy—not to quote Hobbes or Aquinas around the office one day, but because I believe critical thinking is important. I want to handle disputes with more patience, become an active listener, and be increasingly merciful. I hope when I leave college, I am fundamentally a better person than the day I first drove onto campus to move in.
Sure, I still want to snap and have the door to success just swing right open. But the same way my dad and I would laugh knowing full well our little snaps had no control over anything in the world around us, it is funny to think we can force our career to materialize in exactly the way we want it to. It can be daunting, even frustrating at times, but it also allows us to live our lives with agency and intention. We do not always have control over our success, but we can choose the doors we snap in front of.