It's Time to Wake Up from the Default

“I am going to major in computer science and economics,” I told myself.

In first grade, I learned that legs were meant to be folded quietly beneath me in the classroom, not to launch me across a field. Instead of running around the track, I was trapped inside the classroom, struggling to spell: Educayshun. Noledge. Wisdum. Growing up in China, the societal dogma that sciences are more useful than the humanities became ingrained into my bones.

At home, bedtime stories were replaced by my family’s holy trinity doctrine: Go to Stanford, build a start-up and be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Liberal arts colleges were viewed in contempt. Schools like Williams, Amherst and Bowdoin were crossed off the list. “What is a liberal arts education?” they’d say.

Scrolling through my social media, I saw a defined path of success. LinkedIn updates screamed Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, Bain and Deloitte, Merill Lynch and Deutsche. But, I thought, what happens to people who want to study South Asian literature and culture?

“I am going to major in computer science and economics,” I told myself, again and again. “I will be the ultimate definition of success. I will make my Chinese society proud.”

I thought about how my middle school teachers would nod in approval upon hearing my declared major in computer science and economics. Distant relatives would toast me at the annual family gathering, telling me to continue my studies in finance, accounting and statistics as a companion to my economics major. “Your future is going to be amazing,” they’d say. My father would finally be able to brag to his friends, “My daughter owns a successful startup!” — a quick and convenient blockage of his own insecurities.

I lied to myself. I consumed my family’s expectations, and I consumed my society’s beliefs without ever asking myself, “What kind of person do you want to be when you are 40? What is it in this world that makes your soul feel full and your body feel joy?”

I lied to myself. The truth is that computer science and economics are probably not the right majors for me. The truth is that, in fact, I don’t see the world in terms of code and figures. My brain was never good with indecipherable abstractions and funny looking symbols.

Here’s who I really am: I see the world as stories. I see the world in its full vibrancy, teeming with abundant colors, shapes and forms — orange pumpkins, zesty lemons and pink marshmallows. I see the world in its unraveling and concrete emotions — overfilled joy, burning anger, fist-clenching pain, unrequited love. I see the world in its all of its senses — sight, hearing, smell, and feelings — the way words dance on paper, the way books smell, the miracles of human creativity.

I lied to myself. I never bothered to question what society expected of me.

For 18 years, I just consumed. I drowned in a whirlpool of unchallenged assumptions and expectations; I became a consumer of my family, culture, friends and society.

It’s easy to get tempted and to stray away from your true self at Northwestern: majoring in economics because it is safe; securing an internship at Goldman because that is the default token of excellence; sitting in your econometrics and linear algebra class wishing that you signed up for Philosophy of Religion and Arabic instead this quarter.

But it’s important to stop being a consumer of everything that surrounds you. That’s the only way you can discover your true self and seek the things your soul desires. “Imitation is suicide,” said a wise man named Ralph Waldo Emerson. Turning away from the default is hard, but it is the step that will lead you to a more meaningful and fulfilled life.

“I am going to major in Philosophy,” I now tell the world, unapologetically. This time I believe in myself.

Alexandra Huang