Among the (many) things I’m supposed to be writing this summer is my personal statement. So true to form, I have a couple of rambling pages in Google Docs about how great I think science is. Probably about a paragraph and a half from this is going to make it into the actual personal statement that I–hopefully–submit in December. Actually, I have no idea what I’m writing about.
When I was writing a personal statement for undergrad, the challenge wasn’t so much, “What do I want to do with my life?” but rather, “Who am I even?” And while the answer to that second question is still anyone’s guess, the answer to the first is what’s supposed to make up the bulk of this unwritten essay. The two are not totally disparate issues; to some extent, the first is part of the second. What I want to do with my life ought to be influenced by who I am, though an understanding of the latter is not required for a good-enough explanation of the former.
Or maybe that’s part of the problem. How much of who I am should be tied up in what I want to do? The 50-fold uptick in use of the phrase “a fulfilling career” over the past 30 years suggests “a lot.” (Thanks, Wait But Why .)
See, as much as I really do not want an unfulfilling career, what I’m actually afraid of is an unfulfilling life. Careers are a big part of life, so it makes sense that choosing one feels like a big deal; if from the ages of 24-65 I spend 40 hours a week working for 50 weeks each year, then assuming I live for 80 years, I’m going to spend 11.7% of my life at work. And since I haven’t actually started working yet, a little bit more math tells me that of the potential 59 years ahead of me, I’m going to spend 15.9% working.
Actually, those don’t seem like dauntingly large fractions, considering that I’m supposed to spend 33.3% of those years sleeping (although that seems pretty unlikely). But they’re significant enough to count; and so algebra argues for the necessity of a fulfilling career in the pursuit of a fulfilling life.
Fortunately, algebra isn’t always right. Or, more accurately, I really, really refuse to believe that this is true. Of course I’d love to have a job that’s satisfying and challenging and fun. But that 11.7% doesn’t have to mean as much as the other moments and hours and years that I get to invest in things that can truly fulfill. Of course I want to like my job; but I want it to be something that I get to come home from at the end of the day–I want to have a reason to look forward to leaving work. I think that’s my definition of “fulfilling.” And while that seems pretty basic, it’s way too easy to forget as I wade through GRE score reports and transcripts and prerequisites and letters of recommendation–what feels like pouring out the totality of three years of college in pursuit of this fulfillment. Of course I understand that these things do not form my identity–that I’ve found that elsewhere. And so while that 11.7% does count for something, it doesn’t have to count for everything. I get to choose.