At Duke, we love busyness. Not business—corporations and organizations—but, rather, the state of being busy, of being scheduled to be somewhere or do something. A light week here is one with only one paper, two tests, four meetings, an intramural soccer game and eighteen hours in a tent. We are so lucky to live in a place like this—a place where so much is at our fingertips. We can dabble in every academic discipline imaginable, watch world class athletes compete, engage with hundreds of clubs and organizations and enjoy a night on the town in America’s Foodiest Small Town—or, at least, catch a ride on a mechanical bull. We’re told from Day One that our time here is finite, so we quickly get to work filling it, making the most of what is offered by booking our schedules wall to wall, semester to semester and even summer to summer.
I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years working in Washington, DC. While there, I began watching The West Wing and was hooked by the end of the first episode. I found a lot to love about the series, but, more than anything, I latched onto the mantra of fictional president Jed Bartlet, a simple line uttered hundreds of times throughout the series: “What’s next?”
From the first time I heard it, I loved the sentiment of ‘what’s next.’ It is the idea that we should always strive for more. Hearing it, I imagined a life so hyper-scheduled that I would constantly be jetting from commitment to commitment. That is success, I thought.
And the more I considered it, the more I realized that I—like many of you—have defined my life by the mantra of ‘what’s next?’ for as long as I can remember. While I built many amazing friendships there, high school was often just a series of steps intended to get me to college—a logical progression of the hardest classes, increasing extracurricular involvement, engaged summers and strong test scores. After all, we live in a world that, by and large, rewards the ‘what’s next?’ mindset. Being a “planner,” we’re told, allows us to achieve balance in life—seamlessly juggling work, school, athletics, extracurriculars and fun. Everything gets a time and place. To the casual observer—and many a job interviewer—our clear goals indicate that we are on a path, that we are going somewhere. That we are not just wandering aimlessly. We’re getting to ‘what’s next!’
Yet, the more I’ve dug into this way of life, the more I’ve realized that it has its flaws. While planning for the future is certainly important, our campus’s obsession with the ‘what’s next’ mentality has often left many of us—myself included—paralyzed by a fear of failure. We avoid risks and lack spontaneity. We spend too many nights out obsessively checking our phones, trying to confirm that we are at the “right” party or waiting for the hour at which it is socially acceptable to leave. Even in leisure, we’re doing things to have said we’ve done them. To check the box and move onto ‘what’s next.’
I see, now, with the 20-20 vision of hindsight, that I spent much of my Duke career so busy living in the next that I often forgot to live in the now. A few months into freshman year, thanks to those first friends I made in Gilbert-Addoms—those crazy people who wanted me to tent with them!—I truly felt safe here socially, and my initial fear of inadequacy dissipated some. Confident that my next included three more years at Duke, I mentally pivoted to proving myself as I had in high school, to neatly crossing off the to do’s of graduation requirements. I took up economics, partially because I had enjoyed it in high school, but largely because I had heard that the Duke department was strong and that it was the hardest, most practical major in Trinity. And, so, with that, I put myself on a path of classes in which I was always looking forward to the next—to knocking out the math, to finishing the core, to getting to the electives that would really define my undergraduate education. It was on this track that I first realized my construction of ‘what’s next’ could be wrong. While I had been denied my next throughout my time at Duke—like not getting the internship I wanted, losing an election or not being accepted to DukeEngage—I had never doubted that my path, my overarching philosophy, might be flawed.
While perusing the course catalog, intent on satisfying the Cross-Cultural Inquiry Mode of Inquiry—the next thing on my list—I came across the Education department. I took the introductory class and liked it so much that I ended up adding the minor in my junior and senior years. When asked why I would pair such a thing with economics, I told the truth: I really loved going to class.
In my seminars, the discussions were so interesting that I didn’t want the period to end. Monday-Wednesday from 1:15 to 2:30 became something to look forward to, rather than something to fill my schedule and satisfy requirements. Through the issues we studied, my own philosophy of education began to change. I realized that there is more to learning, and to life, than doing the toughest, most pragmatic thing and moving on to ‘what’s next.’ While I had always believed that the purpose of school was to get people into the workforce, I came to see the benefits of wandering through the liberal arts, of creating an educated citizenry that loves learning. What are you going to “do” with an English major, an Education minor or an Ethics Certificate? I don’t know. But if you’re happy earning them—if you’re really engaged in class—then you leave here better for it, and it’s not aimless wandering at all. The thought provoking moments are why we all came to Duke in the first place. Not just for the piece of paper that will give us access to the next thing in life, but to learn from and be challenged by the incredibly smart people that surround us each day—the people who’ve shown us that every story, every experience, matters.
Breaking down the philosophy of ‘what’s next’ academically allowed me to shift socially as well. While my friends didn’t change, my conception of fun did. I still made a senior “bucket list,” but going to things became less about checking them off a list and more about enjoying the experience there. I finally learned to really revel in the company of friends, loving the magical opposite of loneliness that we all come to find on this campus. I took risks, like writing a Me Too Monologue and performing bhangra in Page Auditorium. I pulled my first all-nighter (talking, not working), never ready to give in to sleep—not because I didn’t want to face what was next, whatever that tomorrow would bring, but because I felt so happy and alive in that now. I will not pretend that I gave up the ‘what’s next’ mentality completely this year or that anyone truly can. But I’d like to think we can achieve a more healthy level of stress and micromanaging; taking the good of ‘what’s next’ while leaving its dangers behind.
Right now, you’re probably pondering your own ‘what’s next?’ Maybe it’s the next that comes soon—that long drive away from Duke we all face. Or, maybe, it’s the job or internship or residency or graduate program that awaits you in the coming months. Or, maybe, it’s something less urgent, the amorphous future we’re all walking into. Whatever it is—it is normal. We’ll always ponder what surprises are in the cards, and, no matter how much we plan for it, life will find ways to catch us off guard. After graduation, the ‘nexts’ are not as clear-cut as the ones we entered school with. And while that may be scary, it is also liberating. We can free ourselves from the chains of whatever our small society calls “the hardest thing,” the most “prestigious” or “rewarding” path. Our first job won’t be our last, and we are not inextricably bound to the major we’ve pursued or the graduate degree we’ve earned.
So, with that somewhat frightening vision of freedom in mind, I leave you with a line from J.R.R. Tolkien, taught to me by a friend unafraid to stray from Duke’s beaten paths: “Not all those who wander are lost.” Class of 2013, I hope we each find the courage to wander a little more, and I wish you good luck in all of ‘what’s next!’
George Carotenuto, Trinity ‘13, was DSG vice president for facilities and environment during his senior year at Duke.