Mostly when I do grad school workshops with students, we talk about grad school questions. But every now and then, students will get me one-on-one and express their ambivalence about their academic paths; they have so many things they are interested in and so many directions they could go in, and they don't know which to pursue.
It is painful knowing that there are so many possibilities, and that to choose from among them is to foreclose (at least for a time) on others. And I can't make that decision for them, nor should I, especially since we've often only just met. So here is what I tell them:
Do the thing that you want more than anything and that also terrifies you.
Rudolph Otto, writing in The Idea of the Holy, referred to this quality as the numinous: our sense of holiness is characterized by two qualities: the fascinans, our sense of fascination or desire that draws us in, and the mysterium tremendum, the tremendous mystery of the divine that scares the bejeesus out of us.
I'm not much of a religious person, but Otto's description of the numinous evokes my childhood obsession with Dead End signs. I always insisted my parents drive past them at night, because they invoked that special mix of fascination and dread.
What lay beyond the dead end? I was dying to know.
The experiences that had resulted from my chasing the dead end signs in my life, entering into terra incognita (Here be dragons!), were the most profound and transformative, and the truest to who I was.
My first experience with that was in a middle school literature class. I adored my literature teacher, Mr. Pope. I also couldn't do what he asked of me: write in a writer's journal. For the first time, I was being asked to put something of my own self on the page. And so I stared at that blank page for hours. I tried really hard. I'd sometimes get a small handful of pages in, and switch notebooks because I was too scared to have it all in one place. I lied far more often than was believable about having "forgotten" my journal.
I also struggled with writing more than two sentences of a five-paragraph essay about the novels and short stories we read. I just couldn't do it. Mr. Pope gave me more grace than I perhaps deserved, but it was the grace I needed.
And so, not knowing whether I would even pass or not — and you have no idea how much this straight-A kid would have been made to suffer had I gotten any less than a B — I took creative writing in high school. I was determined to learn to write. I was also terrified. I wrote some lousy short stories, but then, when we learned to write poetry, I hit my stride.
These days, writing is a core part of my identity, and I have a reputation in my department as a "beautiful writer." It's hard to imagine I was once a person who found it painfully impossible.
I've chased dead end signs a few more times now. Taking counselling courses at the community college? Terrifying. Going back to university after having previously crashed and burned in spectacular fashion? Also terrifying. Pursuing graduate studies and writing a book-length thesis? Utterly unnerving.
That fear-combined-with-desire is a sign, a beacon, that something risky-but-wonderful lays beyond it. Follow that feeling, wherever it leads.