"What did I want? The answer is that I had no idea."Flickr/JenniPenni

Decisions can be scary. I am terrible at them; I regularly struggle to decide on what to have for dinner. My friend and I used to have a system whereby if we ever wanted to go out to eat, I would pick two options I liked and then he would choose the one he preferred just to save me from ever having to make the final choice. It’s extremely silly, but an actual struggle I face, and one that I know several others do too - albeit to varying degrees.

Anxiety concerning the future can often make our decisions particularly difficult. There’s something intensely nerve-wracking about shutting a door forever. I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming number of students I spoke to who were considering switching degrees last year - myself included in this mix. Despite the long, gruelling process it took to be admitted to our initial courses, it was still difficult to quiet that nagging voice in the back of our heads telling us we should have done something else. That there was something better out there.

"We are forced to single out one, perfect door to leave open in order to lead to the happiest and most fulfilling future."

The English education system is perhaps particularly bad at placing this pressure of having fixed ambitions on students at a young age. At sixteen we have to narrow down our curriculum options to just three or four choices, thus shutting doors and ruling out futures. Two years later, we then pick one path alone to pursue. In doing so, we are not only shutting doors, but are forced to single out one perfect door to leave open in order to lead to the happiest and most fulfilling future.

In a world filled with choices, we want the best. But arguably this ‘best’ does not exist. This summer, I managed to get a substantial part of the way through the process of switching degrees from English to History in pursuit of this ideal - before realising it was a dream that had never really existed in the first place.

With such a fine line between disciplines, ability could hardly play a role in my decision, and it was left down to interest, passion, and ultimately my own desire to decide on what to do. What did I want? The answer is that I had no idea. When choosing what to apply for initially, the fact that my brother had done History before me probably played a much bigger role than it should have done in my decision to pursue English. Everyone says that we should ignore what our siblings do and that it’s not a competition, but anyone with siblings will know this advice is impossible to actually follow. There are so many random, irrational and ultimately arbitrary factors that can influence so many of our most consequential decisions.

So a year into my degree, I was enjoying it. But could I have been enjoying History more? Perhaps people would take me more seriously if I were reading History, instead of seeing me as yet another girl who didn’t quite know what to do and ended up settling on English because I know I like books. Perhaps I would even be better at History after all; I was in school, at least. Though I love English, that lightning bolt of passion for any subject had never quite seemed to strike me.

"There are so many random, irrational and ultimately arbitrary factors that can influence so many of our most consequential decisions."

Well, perhaps a year ago, History may have suited me more. Before I had ever set foot in university, before I had ever written a supervision essay, met all the people here, struggled through all of Le Morte D’Arthur, and lived through my formative first year at Cambridge, maybe History just might have been the better option for me. For the person that I was a year ago, History may perhaps have suited me more. I can never be sure. But I am not that person anymore, and passion is not something that innately burns within us from birth – it is something that is developed and honed through our own endeavours and pursuits.


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Now, as I start the second year of my degree, I feel happy doing English. It may not have been ‘meant’ for me in the way that I was perhaps looking for, and I still find numerous frustrations with it, but I have chosen to do it and I am content with it. After having let my interests develop organically for a whole year, I now feel that English is what I want to do, and not an ill-defined idea of what I could be happier pursuing.

This is not to say that my case is universal. There may of course be some people who truly have made the wrong decision, about their degree or otherwise, or who do not have the same privilege of choice as I and so many of us have. These people may rightfully want to go back and pursue a different path. I would simply like to offer up some of the thoughts I have had in the last year that have given me some comfort in my own choices; neither ground-breaking nor particularly original, but often in need of some reiteration. In a world in which so many of our big decisions can be construed as largely arbitrary - what to study, what job to pursue, where to live, who to talk to in a room - it can be down to us to embrace indecision and find purpose in it for ourselves. The grass is not necessarily always greener on the other side.

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