Friday, March 28, 2014

The Right Choice

I've had reason to be thinking lately about the decision-making process in academic life, about right and wrong decisions and choices, and about what it says about us if, in a particular moment, we aren't able to discern the right choice from the wrong one. My general position is this: First, if someone makes a decision that seems objectively to be bad, then the right one probably wasn't the right thing to begin with. And second, I have very little respect for people who aren't able to discern good advice from bad, and so if they make bad decisions because they got bad advice, it's their own fault even more than the erroneous counselor. I've made pretty good decisions in my career thus far.

(And yes, before anyone starts, I know how much luck played into the fact that I have a tenure-track job. All I'm saying is that where I have had to make decisions, I've largely made the right ones, and that set me up well to be able to take advantage of the luck that came my way.)

In certain cases, I've chosen things that could have gone any way at all. For example, I received some very serious cautions against applying for the current position that I hold at NYU, on the basis that it was too early in my graduate career and that the search would probably fail and they'd have to re-run it the next year, why I could apply at a better moment for my dissertation. Obviously I didn't follow that advice, and as much as my dissertation did suffer, I'm obviously, on balance, glad to have the job and the less good dissertation than a great and comprehensive dissertation and potentially still be in job market limbo-hell.

But when I was choosing a graduate program, my hand was more forced. I made the right decision, but I don't know with 100% certainty that I would have, had the wrong choice actually been available to me. I applied to Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Chicago, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was devastated to be rejected by the first on that list not so much because I really wanted to be there for graduate school but because I interpreted the decision to mean my own professors were telling me that I wasn't good enough. The second was where I really wanted to go, but I withdrew my application when the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department to which I had applied decided that I wasn't NELCy enough and kicked my application over to Comparative Literature; I hadn't applied to Comp Lit because I didn't want to be in Comp Lit, hence my decision to withdraw. I was admitted to the other three.

My undergraduate adviser had told me that if she could control both sides of the process, she'd just pick me up and put me at Cornell — that I could apply to Harvard, that I could think about Harvard all I wanted, but that at the end of the day I had to go to Cornell.  Her advice couldn't be clearer. By the time I got through my pre-admission visit at Cornell, what was right about that program was so clear to me. It was such a breath of fresh air compared to the disfunction that is apparent even to the undergraduates at Yale. I'd like to think that out of respect to my adviser, I would have visited Cornell even if I had been admitted to Harvard, too, but I can't say with certainty that I would have. I like to give myself credit in hindsight and say that I would have seen what was so right about Cornell and chosen it even if Harvard and Yale had accepted me. But I can't be sure. I am so, unspeakably lucky that I was forced to make the right decision.

I made the rightest decision of my life, the one that has allowed me to make subsequent good decisions, essentially under duress. Since then I've become better about letting the right combination of head and heart rule in these situations and making the choices that are the right ones for me and objectively the right ones. But perhaps I can't afford to be as dismissive of those who don't make the right ones, especially early on. Or perhaps I've learned enough to have earned that perspective.

There's that Celia Cruz lyric that comes to mind. I'm not remembering it precisely, something along the lines of: Lucky me to be born in Havana, and there I became a singer of songs.

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