The Lives I will Never Live

A Sophomore’s Struggle with the Open Curriculum

When I was first considering applying to Brown, I heard of the Princeton Review’s famed “Happiest Colleges in America” list, in which Brown consistently places in the top 10. I remember wondering why students at Brown were so happy, and a few Google searches told me that one main reason was the open curriculum. With unlimited freedom and no constraints, there was nothing stopping students from utter satisfaction with every class they took. I came to Brown wholeheartedly believing that implicit in the notion of choice was the idea of happiness.

But in the middle of first semester, sophomore year, I began to feel unhappy with the world and myself. College Hill, once a place full of boundless optimism and promise, had become bleak and boring. Caught between my own expectations and disappointments, my pride and angst to seek help, I found myself following daily patterns. I grudgingly pulled myself out of bed, ran to class, monotonously wrote essays and submitted problem sets. I felt disengaged from my coursework, unfulfilled by what I was learning. I felt trapped in my routines, in my own choices—choices that I had initially made to secure my own happiness. That’s the trouble with choice, a flaw that is rarely acknowledged by Brown’s open curriculum. What if you choose wrong? And when you realize that you’ve chosen wrong, that you’ve caused your own unhappiness, how do you carry that burden?

The burden of choice and the promise of happiness is a heavy one to bear. In his famous TED Talk “The Paradox of Choice,” Barry Schwartz addresses the shortcomings of endless opportunity. He argues that unlimited choice does not lead to freedom but rather can result in paralysis. In the act of choosing, an option must be discarded and another must be selected. A central concept in economics is termed “opportunity cost,” which represents the benefits lost by not choosing the best alternative option. And because of this opportunity cost, there will always be a slight dissatisfaction with the outcome. With choice comes a twinge of regret. And this regret could lead to lower satisfaction. Schwartz furthers his argument by arguing that with more choice comes a higher expectation. When all options are made available, the expectation of finding the perfect solution increases. We lose the open mindedness and surprise of discovering the mundane becoming the extraordinary. Instead, the burden of the opportunity cost forces us to demand perfection with our chosen outcome.

In sophomore year, first semester, I found myself grappling with many of Schwartz’s criticisms of choice. All those around me appeared to know what they were doing, but I did not. I heard about algorithms in upper level computer science, critical theory in comparative literature, and I felt myself slowly disintegrating. Disintegrating because I did not know what my friends knew and may never know what they knew. The ways in which these and other disciplines seemed to employ critical thought and foster independent thinking made me rather envious. What did I want to do? What did I feel immersed in? Truth be told, I became more and more disenchanted with what I was studying. I found my biology and public health PowerPoints to be copious and exhausting, devoid of any deeper meaning or significance, unable to reignite the curiosity and intrigue that had first drawn me to both disciplines. I began to deride myself for my choices—it was my fault that I had chosen classes that were making me miserable. All the lives I would never have crushed and squeezed me, compressing my lungs and weakening my joints. I realized there were so many disciplines, books, ideas, people, places, languages, countries, and experiences that I would never have the chance to encounter in my life. I became so fixated on the experiences I was not having, the ways of thinking that I did not have access to, the lives I would never live, that I became more what I was not than what I was.  

It was a conversation with my mother that made me realize that I simply couldn’t continue thinking about life the way I was. “You’re one person, and you have a lifetime to study. There’s so much to learn right in front of you if you just bother to look. You can’t do everything! ” she exasperatedly told me. Oddly enough, with those words (or the annoyance with which she said them), I saw clarity. I stepped back. I learnt that big is in the small. Magnanimity is in the minutia. To experience everything, I did not need to have everything. To experience everything, I had to be content with the small, with the mistakes and the bad decisions, the regrets and the lost opportunities. I had to accept my limitations to live largely. I cannot live every life I want to, I can never be limitless. But I can find the limitless in the limited.

This semester, I’ve returned to human biology with a new perspective. With added political science, statistics, and public health classes, I’ve found myself falling in love with what initially enchanted me about biology—understanding human life. My varied coursework ranging from problem sets to critical essays to rote memorization has restored the variety I initially sought in my education. Understanding health from both humanistic and scientific perspectives has allowed me to grapple with both the big and small questions. It has reminded me why biology, the study of life, is so essential to understanding human nature and pertinent to addressing the challenges we face in the 21st century.  

What Schwartz fails to acknowledge in his TED Talk that I have learned in the past few months is the power of choice can provoke self reflection and vulnerability. The ability of choice  humbles and reminds us that we must embrace and celebrate imperfection. My unhappiness stemmed from the pressure to make good choices. And if Brown has taught me anything, it is that bad choices can be a blessing in disguise, a calling to embrace the turmoil of life. That is the innate beauty of the human experience, that even at the end of life, we sit on our beds, with regrets and lost opportunities. We push and stretch and bend—only to sit on the cusp, the edge, the tipping point, of something more. We are all bound by time. What we choose to do with the time we have makes it all the more special—sweet in its ephemerality, precious in its fleetingness.