A year ago, I dropped out of UC Berkeley. I was planning to take a year, burnish what skills I had and reapply to other schools — theater conservatories, where they would teach me to sing, act and dance. And I never wanted to look back, to imagine myself returning to the study of economics, head hung, tail between my legs. That would have felt like failure.
But here I am, once again, an economics major at UC Berkeley. And I don’t feel as though I failed. In fact, despite being right back where I started, my “year of living dangerously” feels like an unqualified success. Strangely, though, even I am not quite sure why.
At the end of the summer of 2018, my then-girlfriend broke up with me; I moved into and out of the co-ops in the space of two weeks; and I got my ears pierced impulsively on my birthday. It was a time of chaos. I floundered academically, dropping a class for the first time, discarding one and then both of the majors I had envisioned for myself since middle school.
I felt acutely alone at UC Berkeley, and I began to question the master plan I’d had all my life — a linear one, likely familiar to many: a good college, a “serious” degree, law school, onward and upward. But what good was that ambition if it felt hollow? Would all of life be draining if I kept pursuing subjects that bored me? I had reached what is often glibly termed an “existential crisis.”
Amid the turbulence, small things were magnified. If my classes were dull: Why was I in college? If I didn’t want to go to law school after all: Why not move to New York to study acting? Little moments of doubt become sudden reevaluations of life.
After some tense, realistic phone calls with my parents, I planned to drop out and move home after finishing the semester. In the months after leaving UC Berkeley, I lived in a vortex of doubt, exhilaration and panic. This surely sounds dramatic, and it felt that way.
Though I did pretty conventional things — worked a couple of jobs, went to evening dance classes, started learning to play guitar — most of these felt like watershed moments. Despite loving musical theater all my life, for instance, I had never taken a dance class. Despite loving music, I’d never picked up an instrument. I had also never worked full time.
In many ways, my departure from the normalcy of school was radical. I stopped living in what seemed the most conventional way. I stopped playing it safe. I had never considered myself a risk-taker, but after dropping out, I realized my definition of “risk” was dangerously broad: Anything where I could possibly fail counted as “risky.” And what struck me for the first time in 20 years was how abysmal an attitude that was.
Eventually, I decided to dispense with another huge norm: the stigma of quitting — or, equally bad, seeming to quit. My parents were planning to move back to Oregon from Massachusetts (where I grew up and they still lived), and rather than move with them to a town I barely knew, I chose to return to UC Berkeley.
It seemed like an odd sort of failure: I had failed to drop out properly, I felt. Wouldn’t everyone think the unconventional life was too much for me? Wouldn’t I seem like an academic square who didn’t have the guts to chase his real dreams? It felt like the easy way out.
In mourning my own apparent cowardice, however, I realized I was wrong. Who had I failed? Not myself, since I was still chasing what I wanted. Not my parents, since they didn’t care what I pursued. Not my friends, who were generous and quick to welcome me back.
Ultimately, I had failed to meet expectations. At various points, I had confused everyone I knew with how frequently I changed my mind. Perhaps constantly changing one’s mind is the cliché of college, but if so, I learned how to change my mind for the very first time.
This spring, I don’t know if any theater schools will accept me. I think I’m an engaging actor, a decent singer and a sometimes-acceptable dancer. But this dream is still that: a dream. And though I’ll have an economics degree under my belt while I follow it, it’s still an open question.
I will, however, keep struggling — striving? — to be risky. A lot of the things I would once have looked on as failures (e.g. dropping out of college) turned out to be nonevents. They weren’t disastrous at all. In fact, dropping out of college and failing at dropping out of college taught me the most precious lesson I have ever learned: how to doubt. Frankly, I’m not even sure I’ll pursue theater after all, and sometimes that doubt is utterly liberating.
Where once I was addicted to certainty, I have come to realize the value of second-guessing myself, others, the wisdom I receive and even the wisdom I think I’ve acquired. Certainty may be just another name for dogma, and I would rather quit a thousand erstwhile ambitions than live another year of my life pretending I know the answers.