As I enter my senior year at Brown, I’m watching everyone around me make decisions that, on the surface, seem life-defining. What will our futures hold, and what is the best way we can shape them? For some, this question starts early. Many students in my class already know where they will be working a year from now. I, too, have started to wonder what my next steps will be after graduation. However, in my own journey, it seems inconceivable to know exactly where I will be in a year. At this juncture in my life, the importance of aimlessness has never been more clear to me. After the goal-driven adolescence that led us all to Brown, and after four years of trying to find our purpose, it might be time to stop setting objectives and to see where our paths take us. Though life goals can provide a sense of purpose, aimlessness can allow us the space to find out what drives us.
The Indian Mahayana thinker Nagarjuna theorized that this idea of aimlessness, or emptiness, is the true nature of reality. When someone embraces aimlessness, they free themselves of any expectations and consequent disappointments. By accepting aimlessness, Nagarjuna argued, we can invest more energy towards enlightening ourselves — learning about ourselves, learning about the world and acquiring wisdom. In our early 20s, connecting with our values and learning who we are at our core is deeply important. Additionally, learning to loosen our expectations of the future will save us disappointment as we inevitably end up on unexpected paths when we graduate.
To that end, aimlessness begets openness. If we free ourselves from the pressure of focusing on goals and achievements, we open ourselves to new and exciting experiences. Perhaps a student that thought he would end up in finance takes a beat to be aimless and finds himself working at a small local newspaper. Or perhaps a student who always pictured herself moving to New York post-grad doesn’t put all of her energy into that goal, and instead finds herself in Atlanta and much happier than she would have been in New York. A study in Scientific American found that such open-minded people actually see the world differently and tend to be “intellectually curious, creative and imaginative.” If aimlessness can lead to all of these boons, why can’t we all strive to be more aimless?
Unfortunately, that question does have real answers. For example, in the case of international students wishing to stay in the U.S., it takes great planning and goal-setting in order to secure a visa. Additionally, a lack of financial resources may be a motivating factor for students to jump into a long, stable career and map out their lives early. And as we approach the age of 26 — when those of us on our parents’ insurance lose coverage — the looming dread of securing healthcare means that we do have to get serious and make some sort of plan.
Nevertheless, we can all find our own ways to be aimless in our everyday lives. Mind-wandering is a great, accessible form of aimlessness, albeit unfortunately frowned upon in our society for its lack of productivity. Allowing ourselves to be bored and to use our brains to wander helps us enter new spaces of reflection and introspection. Although it may seem counterintuitive, lacking an immediate goal or specific thought process can lead to greater focus and clarity in our lives.
For first-years and seniors alike, the pressure to have everything “figured out” is a big one. However, avoiding that pressure and actually striving toward the opposite of “figuring it out” might be more productive for our lives in the long run. As first-years, exploring the Open Curriculum without any expectations of building a new concentration or securing a career pathway is enriching in itself. As seniors, learning to honestly and proudly answer the question “What are you going to do when you graduate?” with “I don’t know” allows us to step off the hamster wheel, look in the mirror and, in good time, figure it out.