Chris Hagan wrote this reflection piece as he sees those in his class – the graduating class of 2020 – contemplate where they will go and what they will do upon graduating from Minerva in only a few short months.
These last few weeks I’ve found myself sitting back in a mix of pride and admiration almost every day, listening to you talk about your plans for life-after-Minerva. I’ve heard about the jobs you’re applying to, the grad school programs you’re sitting the GRE for, and the big, bright cities you plan to live in.
I’ve relished talking about your post-university plans. Hearing you contemplate your next steps expresses parts of your character and passion in a way I haven’t felt since we first met in San Francisco. When you speak about the future with a furrowed brow or a barely-suppressed grin, I see you more clearly. Returning to Berlin to work with NGOs and soak up the techno culture you know and love. Taking a year to go back home and work in a flower shop with people you know, driven by a desire to return to normalcy. Preparing for the 70 hour work weeks of Wall Street with a look of relish, rather than fear. In each of these ambitions, whether concrete or half-formed, I get the chance to see you two years from now, or five, or ten. I get to think of you married, or with kids, or very much not with either of those things. In these hazy images, I find myself immensely contented, thrilled to witness you take flight in a direction of your choice.
On the flip-side of this contented haze is the pressure and stress that comes with uncertainty. The reality of a mountain of student-debt that sits at odds with a burning desire to go to art school. Visa worries, paired with the knowledge that returning home is not an option. The sheer paralysis of having to take your intellectual curiosity and breadth of passions and push them in a singular direction. For many of us, this choice feels momentous, perhaps the most independently-minded decision of our lives.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How can we enjoy the excitement and freedom of making our next steps, while also responding to the constraints we each might face?
As I do when faced with most big questions, I turned to books. This time I found my solace in Sylvia Plath, in a passage I hadn’t read since I was sat at my Year 12 English Literature desk:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Our final year has us standing beneath our fig trees, surveying the small fruits above. Which fig will make me happiest? Which gives me a chance to take a rest? Which justifies this education, this travel, these internships?
Luckily for us, there is no correct choice.
We might choose the plumpest, ripest looking fruit, just to bite in and realise it’s rotten. The reality of the fig tree is this: there are good figs, there are bad figs, and a whole lot of figs in between. The only way to figure out which is which is to pluck one from the tree and take a bite.
Over the next year we get to pick one of these figs, be it a grad school, a job in a new country, the choice to go all-in on a startup idea, or heading home to look after a family member. You will love some parts of your choice. You will hate some parts of your choice. You will probably make a new, equally bold choice in a few years. All that matters is that you reach up and grab.
It often feels that, because we’ve been lucky enough to have this Minerva experience, we owe ourselves, our families, our university, something big. A grand next step. A flashy name to put on our LinkedIn. But true impact comes from a place of desire, not obligation. Impact can be working as a barista in your hometown, knowing your regulars by name and making each of their morning’s a little more joyful. True impact comes when you choose to follow what you deeply care about.
So yes, there will be parts of the next year of our lives that will be stressful. Some of us will question whether we’re making choices for ourselves or for someone else. Some will make trade-offs to deal with the financial realities of independence. Some will get a job this semester. And some will still be searching this time next year. This process is not easy. But it’s not meant to be entirely terrifying and stress-inducing either. Yes, there are dozens of figs hanging right above our heads, and it’s hard to tell from the ground which one to choose. But that’s not the point. The point is that we get to choose.
In a year’s time, I want to visit Sascha on Wall Street and pretend I understand what credit default swaps are. I want to drop by Bella’s flower store and meet the coworkers she’s told me so much about. I want to have coffee with Adrian and look at him across the table, bleary-eyed and grinning after a late-night dancing to techno music. More than anything, I want my classmates, my friends, to make choices that make them happy.