On the rocks

Look Back At It

Zoe Kleinfeld_online

If deep sea divers dive too deep, they are liable to the Martini effect: a debilitating confusion that results from being so far underwater that gases produce anesthetizing effects. Upon surfacing, affected divers are bound to be disoriented. This is what happens when I emerge from spending too much time absorbed in any one situation.

I am often terribly myopic when it comes to acknowledging that beyond my own world exist many other, novel realities. As my third year folds neatly to a close, I find it increasingly difficult to learn specifically through experimentation. I have my people, my activities, my clearly marked zones of emotional and educational comfort; the returns from reaching for something that is just slightly beyond my skill set are not always immediately obvious.

At a school as large as UC Berkeley, one necessarily knits little blankets of community (approximately 1,200 of them) in order to develop a sense of security. But adapting one’s opinions to cohere to those of a community — such as in the co-ops, the Greek system and other student groups — is antagonistic to change. Psychologists call this phenomenon “pluralistic ignorance.” It’s when private preferences differ from perceptions of group norms, and consequently, people subvert their individual desires.

Of course, the catch 22 of this idea is that it assumes I would be able to develop my true preferences without the guidance of group values — and that conformity can impede the development of those preferences. One of the realities of attending this college is the global campus: Students all study in one place, and it’s called UC Berkeley, and we are connected by classes, Tele-BEARS jokes, a (510) area code and Yogurt Park. Stepping outside the box, so to speak, introduces all these weird, wonderful ideas to play with, including this stuff about how discomfort drives action and how so many of our notions about the correct path of pursuit are based on groupthink.

I have a sense that some of the greatest adventures to be had are probably killed by comfort. After all, adventure is the result of following some strand of unknowing. On the one hand, if you’re lucky enough to find a place in which you’ve failed, then you’re lucky enough to be a risk-taker. On the other hand, failure is fundamentally destabilizing.

The beginning and the end are easy, because they just happen. We arrive at school, we take the risks that are necessary to figure out what we want to do and where we want to go. But it’s here, in the middle, that is the hard and important part: it’s the grist of the matter, the eggs in the cake. That there is a pressure to know, now, how exactly I am going to assemble my set of skills — or to have already experimented with what that could mean — seems very antithetical to progress through curiosity. Indeed, it makes it difficult to accept the opportunity cost of pursuing something that neither has immediate gratification nor can be qualified in some way as supplementing whatever path I am already hurtling down. I entered UC Berkeley knowing only a few people and a few things: I wanted to join the school newspaper, and I wanted to study English. Most importantly, I appreciated that the great thing about floundering around is it allows you to be whoever you are.

Certainly, I do not think that I am “me” yet. How can I? I take at least five minutes to decide between buying a turkey or egg salad sandwich! (Though I am increasingly choosing the latter.) This is just to say I neither know how to do many of the things that I am supposed know how to do, nor do I know what I want to do with the things I already know. Sometimes, the experiences that we devote the most time to end up being helpful or didactic in some unforeseen way. But there is a whole pile of flops and lost time and uncertainty that accompany each success. The only way to learn is to keep doing something new, and, if we’re lucky, learning with people who really know how to do it.

Zoe Kleinfeld writes the Wednesday blog on kids these days. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zkleinfeld.

Tags No tags yet