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Does quarantining change our focus on the future?

meritable mediocrity

Thinking About the Future

Byline: It’s perfectly valid to despair over these few future months that were stolen from us, but it crosses a line when we lose focus on whatever privileges we have during such extreme times.

Like so many hopefuls at the time, I decided this January that in 2020, I was going to make major changes to my life. I was tired of feeling the ill-reputed “sophomore slump” throughout fall, and I wanted to change that. To reverse the burnout I felt, I decided to take proactive steps. I changed my major and started attending more events. I started looking into and applying for more academic and pre-professional positions, rather than worry about whether I was qualified enough for them. Through pursuing these actions, I dedicated myself to chasing excitement. 

I was happier this semester than I’ve been for a while, by creating more adventure on the horizon to look forward to. However, the way I mentally organized the timeline of my life remained the same as always. Essentially, I subconsciously took advantage of the way that a lot of our minds work: by living life by anticipating the next exciting thing.

We don’t remember every single, mundane day that we’ve experienced. Our memories are punctuated by highlights—outrageous nights out, fun travel stories, meaningful conversations with friends. When it comes to thinking about the future instead of the past, I’ve always worked in the same way, by anticipating those high-intensity moments that make life worth living. In college, that has manifested with me counting down the days until this party or that social gathering, until spring break, until concerts at The Ritz and Cat’s Cradle.

If COVID-19 weren’t ravishing the planet right now, I’d be living the same way. All at once, I found that so many events I’d mapped into my future were being cancelled, or thrust into a state of flux. On a larger scale, the world watched as one by one, major events were cancelled or postponed, falling like dominos. Everything from March Madness to presidential primaries to the Olympics was set aside as the death toll spiked.

This Monday, we received the news that Duke had officially cancelled all summer programs involving travel. This restriction was one that hit me hard, as from May to June I was going to partake in the Duke in New York Arts & Media program. For the first few weeks of quarantine, I’d spent much of my time applying to internships, knowing it was likely going to be cancelled but hoping that early, optimistic predictions of the virus dying down by the end of May would hold true, especially in New York where the disease is projected to peak higher but earlier.

Now, several Duke students, myself included, are scrambling to readjust our summer plans. But in the string of grim announcements from Duke recently, this isn’t the first time we’ve had to reorient ourselves—our lives, and our thought processes. Like a large swath of the internet, I’ve binged my share of Netflix shows, partaken in Instagram story challenges and liked memes about being bored in quarantine, waiting till we can leave our houses again. As summer plans were destroyed and social distancing measures extended, those activities sometimes feel mind-numbing. I’ve found myself feeling unfulfilled due to the fact that I no longer have anything concrete in the near future to look forward to. Now, I’m left to analyze how we, as a generation, think about the future.

Duke places paramount emphasis on its students’ futures. Higher education is the emblem of a brighter future. Education equips us to enact positive change and allows students from lower-income backgrounds access to build a better life. In the spirit of thinking about the future, pre-professionalism permeates Duke culture. Students obsess over internships, case competitions, and LinkedIn biographies.

I’m not here to argue whether pre-professionalism and our fixation on our distant futures is a good or bad thing. But when we’re displaced from the shared space we’re given to chase distant opportunities, when internships are being cancelled or virtualized left and right, there’s a certain sense of loss of something that we never had.

Younger people are fueled by promotion motivation. Promotion motivation is a tendency to strive for positive gains (compared to a personal, default level), whether they be professional, social or otherwise. In line with the massive developmental changes we experience early in life, promotional motivation embodies our hopes for the future. Later in life, once most adults find a stable footing, promotion motivation subsides, and prevention motivation settles into place. Prevention motivation focuses on maintaining the default level, ensuring that nothing goes wrong. Due to this generational transition in motivation type, studies have found that younger adults equate happiness with excitement, elation, and intensity (something I definitely do), whereas older adults equate happiness with peace and relaxation.

In times like these, relying on a persistent pre-professional mindset, having promotion motivation, seeing prospective and solidified future plans disintegrate, is challenging. This doesn’t mean we should stop making future plans. 

However, it’s important to remember that for those of us who have a safe home to live in with caring families, life is a lot better right now than for so many others in the world. As college students, we are young and generally less affected by the virus. It’s perfectly valid to despair over these few future months that were stolen from us, but it crosses a line when we lose focus on whatever privileges we have during such extreme times.

Plans change. There are always unexpected obstacles. Sometimes, that obstacle is a pandemic. This semester, I’ve definitely taken my daily life at Duke for granted; I regret that, but I don’t regret the promotion motivation I’ve adopted. For the sake of compassion, for our own mental health, it’s important for us to be aware about how much we mentally invest in the future, because the future is not something we’re ever entitled to. And in the meantime, if you can afford it, donate money or masks to those who need them.

Carrie Wang is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "meritable mediocrity," runs on alternate Fridays.

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