Off the Beat: Life is more than just one word

I have always dreaded the question; I think that starting right after the first time we’re asked, we all do. We’ve fielded the question many, many times, and I imagine it’s something I’ll be answering from time to time for the rest of my life.

“What are you studying?” acquaintances ask. I sigh.

I’ve always been jealous of those of you with solid answers. Physics (my favorite). Business. English. Each is one word. They have definite answers. They’re all majors that can be said over a pint of beer in a crowded room without a problem.

My diploma will read “Interdisciplinary Studies Field Major.” My capstone thesis was about the modern American food system and the public health concerns related to it, but I wasn’t even clear about that until it was mostly written. Every time I’m asked, I have a slightly different answer. Most people would look at me in confusion and then launch me their own definition for my major.

“Like food distribution?” they say. No matter what their suggestion, I always say yes. Once, a regular at the coffee shop where I used to work became convinced that I was studying how sketchy restaurants raised raccoon meat to replace the chicken in their main dishes. I nodded and laughed and definitely did not add his story to my thesis.

It’s not that I haven’t studied something specific at Cal. I have. It’s not that I haven’t figured out what I’m interested in and pursued it. I’ve certainly done that.

It’s just that at the end of the day, I’ve never quite found the perfect name for what I study. I’ve finally decided I’m OK with the lack of definition; more than OK, really. In fact, now I like to embrace it. Not being able to describe exactly what I’m interested in reflects the complexity of the subject. Not being able to say precisely what my major signifies and what I want to be “when I grow up” means that as I’ve studied, I’ve narrowed down my interests. Not knowing how to say in a sentence what exactly it is that I’m interested in means that I’m a little bit closer to becoming an expert in something that inspires me and motivates me.

As I move into the real world, I’ve decided I’ll probably always lack a definition here, too. I’ll be working as a freelance photographer, to start with. I have some projects I’m interested in pursuing: some photography related, many not. There are some places in the world I’d like to visit, and I’m not planning on settling down in one spot in the world anytime soon. It wouldn’t be for everybody, but this lifestyle of not quite knowing fits me. I’ll probably have a hard time with the career question, but if I’m happy, I’m imagining it won’t even matter.

The thing about Cal is that nobody fits just one definition. English majors study more than just Shakespeare. Bio majors specialize in their labs. No physicist has ever been able to answer your follow up questions with one-word answers. (My favorite being, “What is your research about?”)

Life is better with more complexities. I have a theory that the more difficult it is for you to define what you’re doing in a single phrase, the more fun you’re having doing it and the more it means to you.

It sounds nice to be a doctor or a lawyer. The titles make these jobs sound safe and straightforward. But none of us came to Cal to be safe; we came to learn, to push the boundaries on our own interests, to take risks. Working hard to be a lawyer is fine, but putting yourself out there and figuring out what kind of lawyer you need to be in order to feel inspired to go to work everyday is the reason you’re here.

At the end of the day, I think it’s the lack of definitions that makes Cal interesting. I can’t imagine feeling as inspired as I do by my peers here if it weren’t for the inability of students at this school to really explain what they’re doing in a single sentence. Four years after I started trying, I still can’t explain my major without at least a few sentences. If they’re really pushing themselves to pursue their interests, I don’t believe anybody at Cal can.

The best part is that the older we get, the more difficult it will be to explain ourselves. With graduation impending, I’m already fielding the question. I can’t tell you in a sentence what I’m doing post-commencement. I’ve decided it will be more interesting if I never can.

I look forward to busy rooms where I’ll share a drink with new acquaintances.

“What do you do?” they’ll ask.

I’ll explain as best I can and then return the question. I’m hoping I won’t quite be able to understand their career in a single sentence and certainly not a single word. I’ll be looking for the person who can’t quite explain what it is that he or she does; the person so inspired by his or her job and life that I’ll have to lean in a few times for clarification over the din of the room.

The truth is that if they can truly say it in a word, I’d rather get a beer with somebody who can’t.