As I sat on the plane to Malaysia last summer, I felt lost. I had little prepared but a sticky note with the hostel address. I was supposed to conduct research interviews there, but my contacts had all canceled. Malaysia was the eighth country in my nine-country whirlwind tour around the world for the Circumnavigator Grant, a summer travel research grant, and it seemed like an impending disaster.
I like planning. Indeed, the first countries on my journey were filled with tight interview schedules and sightseeing to-do lists. Yet by the time I traveled to Malaysia 10 weeks later, the unforgiving pace of my itinerary caught up to me, giving me neither the time nor the energy to prepare.
Little did I know that the best adventures hid in that empty calendar. I made meaningful friendships exploring the Batu Caves with people from my hostel, learned to paint batik and dance traditional joget, as well as hopped on a train to interview Malaysian diplomats in the next city. The fact that the time in my 12-week trip when I was least prepared proved to be the best speaks to the gift of the unknown.
Such spontaneity was out of character for me. I preferred to follow carefully laid plans. There is a sense of comfort in doing what you are supposed to, moving from high school to college, from internships to solid jobs.
Yet for much of my time at Georgetown University, I felt lost. In high school, I focused on getting to college, but once I got to college, the right plan became harder to craft. I arrived at Georgetown assuming success means achievement in academics and my career. But through my friends and my travels, I realized how narrow that thinking is.
I began to see how we construct our own vision of success. For some, success means a high salary that brings financial security. For others, it means meticulous research that pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. And for others, success is found in relationships with family and friends, growing a community. Each vision is valid as it speaks to who we are and what we value. The challenge for me remained figuring out what my vision of success would be. My many passions let me imagine many paths. Creating a plan became an increasingly hopeless exercise.
When I returned to Georgetown senior year, I felt ready to embrace the unknown. After experiencing the freedom of traveling without a plan, I understood that the unknown masks endless opportunity. But the senior job search raised the stakes. The question marks felt heavier, as they pertain to every aspect of our lives ranging from where we would live to how we would support ourselves. Under this pressure, my fragile, new mindset began to crack.
While my peers applied to jobs, I stayed paralyzed, unsure of what I should strive toward. As I questioned who I wanted to be, other people told me who I should be. Their visions of success clashed with mine, adding to the confusion. I spent several months in this mental cage, weighing myself down with divergent visions of my future, before two realizations set me free.
First, I let go of the idea that I should have my life planned out. While I am impressed with my peers who do, I began to see how an unplanned life allows for the unplanned magic I experienced in Malaysia. My life could take many turns. The fact that I cannot imagine who I will be in 10 years is not a reason to panic but rather to celebrate. I will have the best time figuring it out.
Second, I let go of the belief that I needed to have my dream job after graduation. Not only did this belief add incredible pressure, but now the very idea of a dream job seems misleading. A dream job implies a certain destiny, an endpoint in our lives. On the contrary, I hope that my life will never reach this endpoint, but will instead be a constant iteration of growth, excitement and discovery. I hope that I keep changing, causing the nature of my dream job to change too.
I expect a planner like myself will never truly be at home in the unknown. Fortunately, though, I have my entire life to become its friend. For the unknown may not just be a good travel companion, but also a loyal friend full of surprise, bringing excitement to the next adventure.
Ann-Kathrin Merz is a senior in the School of Foreign Service.