Tuesday, July 14, 2009

That's the plan.

For my birthday on Sunday, my aunt and uncle and a couple family friends came over for a low-key dinner party. Their focus was less on my 24th birthday and more on my impending move to Hawaii for grad school. At some point over dinner, my aunt said to me, "Well, you are truly a woman of your convictions; you have always loved ocean things and here you are, going for a Ph.D. in oceanography!"

It's true. Ever since I saw The Little Mermaid at age four, ever since my first visit to Hawaii and Sea Life Park at age five, ever since my school project on sea otters at age seven, I have been fascinated by the ocean. I have been interested in science since elementary school, and I was probably in middle school the first time I decided that I wanted to become a marine biologist when I grew up. I played with the idea of other professions along the way--veterinarian, chemical or civil engineer--but it always came back to the ocean. I even majored in environmental engineering, but I would not have chosen that branch of engineering had it not concentrated so much on water and the environment. In college, I spent one summer interning at an aquarium and another summer doing oceanographic research. After graduation, I went back to doing oceanographic research, and now I am about to embark on a Ph.D. program in physical oceanography.

But does this make me a woman of my convictions, or just a woman who doesn't know how to change lanes? People tell you all along that you can always change your mind about what you want to do with your life: Don't like your major? You can change it! Too late to change it? Majors don't really matter anyway! But the fact is that it's always easiest to stay the course. Changing majors involves a lot of catching up on courses. Changing to a job unrelated to your major may involve post-bac courses or unpaid internships to introduce you to the field. And then there are the questions: Why are you switching? What didn't you like about the old field? What do you think you'll like about the new field? Are you sure? It is so difficult and stressful and overwhelming, unless you are completely sure it's the right choice to change course, it doesn't seem worth the hassle.

But how can you know what you want till you get what you want and you see if you like it?
All I know is what I want most of all is to know what I want.*

I don't know what I want. How could I? There is not enough time in life to try everything, and I can't know if I'll like something until I've tried it. If this is true, then the ability to do anything breeds the inability to choose. I can do anything! becomes How I can do anything? becomes I can do nothing.

The reason I am where I am today is that a little girl decided she wanted to learn about the sea. She chose this path for me and, unable to find anything better to do, I have been powerless to foil her master plan. Perhaps what I am is a woman who lacks conviction. A girl who holds onto something not out of purpose but out of bewilderment.

The latest season of How I Met Your Mother (Season 4) concluded with a conversation and revelation that I found profoundly moving. Following a very bad day that involved battling a goat for a washcloth over and over again and losing his latest (and only) commission to design a building to some rival architects, Ted laments his situation with his friends:
Ted: This is a disaster. How am I going to come back from this?
Lily: Okay I'm just going to ask this: Do you really want to come back from this?
Ted: What's that supposed to mean?
Lily: Architecture is killing you, Ted. And it's killing us to watch it killing you. You're like that goat with the washcloth. You want it so bad, and--and every time the world tries to take it away from you, you keep grabbing it. But you know what, it's just a washcloth. Why do you even want it?
Ted: Because I--I have to be an architect. That's...that's the plan.
Lily: Oh, screw the plan. I planned on being a famous artist. Marshall planned on being an environmental lawyer. Robin planned on being a TV reporter.
Robin: Uh, I am a TV reporter. I'm on every morning at 4am.
Lily: Is that still on? Oh, good for you.
Robin: --Hey, somebody watch it, please.
Lily: Barney planned on being a violinist.
Barney: Lily!
Lily: --Don't tell me things! Look, you can't design your life like a building; it doesn't work that way. You just have to live it and it'll design itself.
Ted: So what, I should just do nothing?
Lily: No, listen to what the world is telling you to do and take the leap.
I am different from Ted because while he was struggling to succeed as an architect, I am cruising into this life as an oceanographer. I have not reached a point where anyone had to ask me "Do you really want to come back from this?" If I had... I have no idea what I would do. Would I take the leap? What leap would I take?

Here I am, about to move to a tropical paradise where I will be paid to scuba-dive around coral reefs. My childhood dream is becoming a reality. And I am whining. It's a bit ridiculous, I know. I should be happy. Really, aside from this tiny part of me, I am indeed very happy. After all,

Happy is what happens when all your dreams come true.

...Well, isn't it?

* Cinderella, Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods
** Glinda, Stephen Schwartz's Wicked


Holly said...

I really liked this post, and the dialogue from the show. I've had a lot of those same issues, except the little girl had commitment issues and didn't like chemistry, so she went from wanting to be a vet, to an ornithologist, to a writer, to a medieval historian (that's what I ended up getting the degree in, lol) to now she's realized she should have gone to art school all along, but is far too poor to take out more loans. But I know what I want to do, its just that I have to take an entirely different path now. Is that bad? Not really. Am I tired of living out of a suitcase at realitve's houses between TV shows and then moving back home anyway because they decided to not hire me and lay off my boss? Yes, very much so, but I'm getting there. I had to take the leap and I did. But I do wish I could get out of Southern California....maybe new york...when I have money. lol

And congrats on moving to hawaii! At least it'll be very pretty!;D

Eleni said...

Thanks! It's always reassuring to be reminded that everyone else's path is just as confused as your own.

I took a couple classes in medieval history (one medieval Europe, one medieval China, so totally different but both cool) in college. Even if it doesn't directly help your chosen profession, it's still fun to know.

From looking at your blog, I think you're really talented. Of course, art may be one of those professions that needs luck as well as talent (my brother's doing screenwriting, so we know how much that depends on luck). Congrats on taking the leap, and good luck on your landing!

Hezabelle said...

Great How I Met Your Mother quote. And Wicked quote! All so very appropriate.

Sometimes I wonder if I choose different things because I'm too afraid to pursue my real dreams. Or are my real dreams just things I like the idea of, not the practicality?

It sounds to me like you really love it. I think if you didn't, by this point something would have to give, right?

Eleni said...

I hope you're right, Hez, that something would have to give. Hopefully it won't give when I'm halfway through my dissertation!

I definitely know what you mean about "real dreams" and wondering if it's really just "the idea" of these dreams that I like. How many people just like the idea of being a doctor--the respect it would bring and the romanticized picture we get of it through TV shows like Grey's Anatomy? I guess it goes back to the dilemma of "If I haven't tried it, how do I know I'll actually like it (rather than just like the idea of it), but if I don't know I'll like it, how can I take the leap and try it?" There's definitely a failure factor in pursuing something unfamiliar; for instance, maybe I'd be happier as a successful actress, but succeeding in my current job beats failing miserably as an actress. It's fear and lack of confidence, but they are not entirely unfounded, seeing as we do have some knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses. I'm rambling on again, but it's so much to think about! Why does life have to be so hard?

Anonymous said...

At least you have a direction.... or at least some kind of an idea about the direction you want to go in...I have no idea at all and that's scary!

Sebastian said...

Mega bonus points for the modern Jewish musical master references...!

Definitely a bit of over-analysis going on. Not unhealthy in itself, but when you start questioning or double-guessing your everyday actions then it's probably time to scale it back a bit.

Half thought-out response here. Need more sleep for brain to work properly...

Photos of you in bikini and SCUBA gear?

Eleni said...

Pink - Yeah, I guess even if I don't know whether it's the right direction, there is comfort in at least having somewhere to go.

Seb - I think I'm entitled to a bit of over-analysis, seeing as I was just about to move 5000 miles. Besides, I wasn't second-guessing my everyday actions but my life's direction.

I don't know about the bikini; I might have to wear a wet suit or something when I do scuba. But hopefully there will be pictures of me in scuba gear. Might have to wait for the semester to start, though.