Figs and Hedgehogs

“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.

– The Bell Jar

Ever since I read The Bell Jar in college, this passage has haunted me. It haunts me because I am greedy and ambitious and picky about what I imagine my life will turn out to be. I used to have a list of alternative careers that I would pursue if I had more one life to live, but in order to keep the figs from wrinkling up at my indecision, I decided to choose just one and pursue it with all my might. I shut all the other options out because I was certain that I wanted to be a hedgehog and not a fox (a la Archilochus). I wanted to be the best at one big thing, rather than know many things. I didn’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none.

But I am also greedy. And even as I hold the fruit that is already in my hands, I mourn the loss of all the other possibilities life could have held for me. I could have been a travel photographer. I could have been a screenwriter. I could have been an art gallery curator or a hot-shot editor for The New Yorker. But I was afraid. Afraid of picking the wrong path. Afraid of failing. “I wanted each and every one of them,” but somehow I felt that “choosing one meant losing all the rest.” And I think the indecision comes from the fear of choosing wrong, the fear that you can’t see where this narrative arc will lead you.

This is not to say that academia was a safe choice or a second choice. In fact, of all the figs, I probably picked the most ridiculously difficult one to attain (especially given current trends, i.e. the odds of securing a tenure-track job are at ~8% and dropping nationwide and the academy has begun responding by accepting fewer PhD students each year). And this is also not to say that I regret it or that I feel as if I’ve picked wrong. But to some degree, I feel like, in my fear that indecision and wavering would cause me to freeze up and stagnate, I failed to give myself the space to play around with different options and to explore what was really possible.

I chose the path that I am currently on my senior year in high school. And the truth is, I’ve been afraid to look back and reassess that decision, to open myself up to the entire fig tree again and say, “pick again.” More and more though, I think I see the necessity of facing that uncertainty and diving into new territory. In doing so, I think this will be more of a recalibration than a complete overhaul, an adjustment of sorts. But I want to give myself the option of pursuing other things, smashing unconnected topics and fields together, and seeing what will become of it all.

I want to allow myself to not plan because there’s no way I can possibly know where things will lead. I just want to be passionate about the things that I love and not worry just yet about how it will all fit together. And somehow, I think this will open doors that I didn’t know existed and – hopefully – lead to a happier me in the end. I think it’s time to stop doing what “makes sense” and just do what gets me excited in the morning.

This is all a very convoluted way of saying that the way I do my scholarship is about to change dramatically (starting with my oral exam lists) and I hope you (and my graduate program) will bear with me long enough to see exactly why this is the best move for me.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

– Steve Jobs