Following the Yellow Brick Road

Two years ago, I came to UC Berkeley as a determined student with a set of goals in mind. Determined to channel my inner resolve and live up to my potential, I knew that I was standing at the beginning of my Yellow Brick Road, and all I had to do was to successfully follow it to the finish line. Now, that Emerald City still appears to be a figment of my imagination.

Fact is, all of us have worked hard to reach our current standing and all of us have certain plans for the future. But judging by how my last two years at UC Berkeley have unfolded, those plans are often arbitrary. No matter what the level of certainty or curiosity about prospective events may be, until they actually happen, they will remain distant concepts, guided by anticipations and expectations, and likely to change.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” the Yellow Brick Road winds through attractive hills and meadows while also being broken at different intervals and cutting across dangerous forests and difficult terrains. How we choose to navigate these bumps is what constitutes our purpose.

“Purpose” is one of those philosophical paradigms that we are forced to think about every now and then. Those of you who spent time with your families over break will know exactly what I am talking about. Our purpose in life is defined by our beliefs and values, along with our priorities and interests — things that make us who we are as unique human beings. We like to believe that we have a purpose in life. That we are “cut out” for certain things while ill suited for others.

Why do I spring this upon you all of a sudden? Because as of August 23, UC Berkeley will welcome a new class of Golden Bears and each one of them will arrive on campus with their own set of ambitions. And I feel there is a responsibility on my shoulders, as someone who has been in the same boat, to give advice, about things I learned along the way.

I almost never came to Berkeley to begin with. I was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. UC Berkeley was the best college I applied to abroad. Coming here was one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make. Before arriving on campus, I researched thoroughly on all the different things I wanted to be involved in. I tried finding a specific track to keep me focused all the way through. But the path I had carved for myself kept vanishing from under me every time I tried following it, and I veered off course again.

Truth is, I tried defining my purpose early on but it didn’t work out and every semester I seemed to be shifting course. A lot of newcomers will find themselves on similar shaky ground. Some might even think entering college means their ambitions up to this point will guide them through the next four years; but, the truth is, life is not that simple. The paths some of us so meticulously and prematurely try to carve for ourselves are more often than not, amateur. In my experience, it is how we construct our paths as we cover our journeys that gives us greater room to deal with the bumps along the way.

So I thought about the constant state of flux I was in and I realized that I wasn’t just walking aimlessly in the wilderness. Rather, I was redefining my purpose, and in that process, trying to become the best version of myself. The organizations I am a part of today, including this newspaper, and the major I have chosen were nowhere near my ideal college experience. I figured I could have stayed exactly where I was and follow my checklist, or make the most of flying 8,000 miles away from home and do something different. So what if I don’t have a definite map to the Emerald City, at least by the time I get there, I will have the satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.

Coming to a place like UC Berkeley means encountering versatile people and groundbreaking ideas on a daily basis. Students will also have life-changing experiences and come across unimaginable opportunities for learning and advancement. All of this means that most of us will correct paths plenty of times. That doesn’t mean we weren’t “cut out” for something; rather, it means we were “cut out” for something better. It also means that we choose to define our purpose not by ignoring the bumps and stumbling along the way, but by learning and growing from our experiences.

Purpose is not an immutable property. Neither is it a script set in stone — a plot to take us to your final destinations. To define purpose in such intransigent terms is to limit human capacity and thwart the range of capabilities in our arsenal. Our purpose in life should never be to be a certain this or that. Rather, our purpose should always be to grow, by remaining flexible to changes and open to differences.

The following is an excerpt from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:”

“Many bricks were loose, broken, or missing altogether, leaving large holes that little Toto jumped across and Dorothy carefully walked around.”

So we can either ignore the holes and fall straight through or carefully navigate. The next one may be a trench which may require us to readjust paths. But, hey, who knows what lies beyond the Emerald City?

Contact Azwar Shakeel at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @azwarshakeel12.