Off the Beaten Path

A few months ago, one of my good friends from high school told me she was pregnant. The life path of the contemporary young adult flashed in my mind: go to high school, get a degree, go to college, get a degree, then get more degrees or get a job. Even though I think my friends and I were supportive of her, there were underlying recommendations of an abortion or an adoption. Some of us, I suppose, wondered whether she could continue her current trajectory as a college student with this child on its way.

After a couple of weeks, she decided to keep the baby.

Exhibit A: Iggay Azalea, who dropped out of high school to clean hotel rooms with her mother. I may or may not have included this picture just because I can't stop listening to "Fancy."

Exhibit A: Iggy Azalea, who dropped out of high school to clean hotel rooms with her mother. I may or may not have included this picture just because I can’t stop listening to “Fancy.”

We see what we want to see. Because of confirmation bias and perceptual salience, our own ideas always appear most appealing to us, even when faced with contradictory evidence. For example, in a study conducted by Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard (1975), participants were asked to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. Some were told that they did very well (24/25 correct) and others were told that they only did okay (10/25 correct). Afterward, all the participants were told that experimenters randomly assigned them to one condition or the other – their performance was not really measured, they were just placed in the “accurate” group or the “inaccurate” group. When asked again how many of the suicide notes they thought they got correct, they stuck close to their group designation: those who were told they did very well guessed around 24/25, and those who were told they only did okay still answered around 10/25.  This study shows that we cling to our biased beliefs, even when logic argues against us. Even though we know many paths exist in life that lead toward success, we stick to the ones taught to us at a young age.

A counterargument exists that society guides us toward certain paths for a reason, that the measures in place help us more than hurt us. This holds true in some circumstances, but there will always be people on the fringe: those whose passions guide them to study art instead of business, those whose aptitudes push them right to work instead of college, and those whose psychological reactivity remains higher than the rest of us. Instead of condemning or looking down on people who move through the world in ways that we do not, we should support them and learn from them,  because everyone has struggles and experiences to share no matter what route they take. Enough pressure already exists to conform, and we should empathize with those who strike out on their own.

I guess all of this sentimentality comes from my return home after my first year of college. I reflect on all of my friends from high school and how our paths have diverged; most are in college, but all moved in different directions. No matter what road someone takes, if they travel it with all their heart, they will succeed – walking in the rain is better than sitting down and letting yourself drown. And I know my good friend will make a wonderful mother: despite the many challenges that await her, her friends will be there to support her as much as we can, and all of her hard work will pay off.

Exhibit B: my inability to drive. 1) my hair isn't actually curly. 2) I'm not really bigger than a car. Hopefully I'll learn how to work a car this summer - any advice would be appreciated.

Exhibit B: my inability to drive at 19. 1) my hair isn’t actually curly. 2) I’m not really bigger than a car. Hopefully I’ll learn how to work a car this summer – any advice would be appreciated.

What do you guys think? Are there any unusual decisions you’ve made or paths you’ve chosen? What about other people in your life? Do you think that moving on unforeseen routes might even increase motivation to succeed? I feel like the availability heuristic makes us more inclined to pay attention to high school or college dropouts who succeed as opposed to those who don’t, but there’s no one set outcome for everyone. Also, if you want to check out my reviews for Appetites by Caroline Knapp or Goodbye, Rebel Blue by Shelley Coriell, you can do here and here respectively. Have a great weekend, everyone!

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Off the Beaten Path

  1. I like that you combined an anecdote/reflection with psychological concepts! It makes your post personal and educational, so kudos.
    Driving isn’t that hard if you start with an automatic car. Go to a parking lot, put it in drive, and it’ll start to move at like 1mph. Learn how to brake first, and how to turn when you reach the end of the parking lot. Then start to slowly do the gas pedal until you’re ready to take on neighborhood roads, then bigger roads. I’m completely mystified by stick shifts though.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Sabina! Yeah, I’ve been learning this week and it isn’t too difficult. My instructor took me on the highway during out first lesson (aka within my first hour of ever driving a car) which was a tad scary, but, it was a learning experience.

      • Oh gosh I can’t even imagine. I’d been driving six months before I accidentally turned onto an on-ramp and was like well, I guess I’m gonna learn how to drive on the freeway now.

  2. This is a really interesting, well written post :) I didn’t know of the psychology experiment you mentioned, but it’s really interesting – it definitely made me think!

  3. Gary Pete

    very well said; thanks for sharing

  4. I know there was a time in my life when I allowed myself to follow the decisions being made around me. I look back now and cringe at not having made my own decisions. It may have appeared that I did. But I didn’t. I followed what was laid out before me. Instead of creating my own path. Best wishes to your young friend, mom to be. It’s a different world with a child. I’ve seen younger friends having children who’s friends without babies have shied away from. Mostly because they truly don’t understand the new world a baby creates for it’s ‘makers’. ;)

    • Colleen, I’m glad that although you might have followed the path laid before you earlier in life, you possess an awareness about your choices now and you feel free to talk about them. I agree, it’ll be intriguing to see the social dynamic surrounding the baby, but I’m confident my friends and I will do our best to support her. Thank you for reading and commenting!

  5. I feel like I’m planning to take a very traditional path after high school- go to college, get a job, etc.- and part of me is a bit worried about that. Am I making that choice because it’s really what I want to do, or because it’s what society has told me I need to do? My answer to that question changes often, mostly based on the day. This was a great thought-provoking post!

    • If you take the traditional path, perhaps while you’re on the road you can determine what you like about it and what you dislike about it – then, you can do what you want to do, irrespective of what other people say. But if you’re not feeling too discontent about anything perhaps for now you can move along the way you currently are? Thank you for reading and commenting!

  6. This post was definitely thought provoking, thanks for sharing! Your unique outlook is to be admired

  7. Unusual paths could be great, first of all if you have the will and the courage to resist those biases no matter what. Sometimes you find yourself “alone” at what you do, and discouraging remarks could pull you further down.

    I relate to this post a lot, and I really appreciate the part about empathizing with people who chose a different path. :-) Great post.

    • I agree, people who take disparate paths should try and cultivate resilience – they may travel tough roads, but ones worth taking in the end. Thank you for reading and commenting and I’m glad you found at least some parts of the post worth appreciating!

  8. I’d like to take an unusual path… I want to do a gap year or study abroad. For, like, my entire college education, not just one semester.

    My parents said no though so… >.>

    • Aw, I’m sorry that your parents said no! Maybe with a thoughtful discussion and time they will change their minds? Or maybe you can merge the idea of a gap year or study abroad with the more typical college education/experience?

      Also, thank you for reading and commenting.

  9. I’m sure your friend will be fine. A friend of mine got pregnant really young. She was a full on party girl, and is couldn’t see how she would cope. She adapted almost instantly and is such a great mum to two kids now. Sounds like she has good friends around her. Excellent drawing. Been taking art classes at college? ;0)

    • I’m sure my friend will do well too, thank you for sharing that tidbit about your friend! And ha, art has already been my weakness, perhaps I should invest in a class or two while I can. Thank you for reading and commenting. (:

  10. Very insightful post about your friend. As to the driving thing, I didn’t get my license till I finished college at 23 because previously I had always lived in big cities with good transportation systems and never needed one. Then I moved to a really small town and my grandfather ended up teaching me (insanely patient man btw). The only thing I still find challenging all these years later is parallel parking and/or parking backwards (not on driving test in Alabama where I originally got my license and my depth perception is a bit off) and it took me a few times before I passed the driving test. I cannot for the life of me handle a manual and the whole clutch/brake/gas thing. I probably stalled about 100 times in an hour when my dad first tried to teach me.

    • Hm, it’s reassuring to know that you can obtain your license at several points in your life. It’s interesting to hear how different people learned and were taught driving, and I’m glad that there are only a few things you find difficult about it now. Thank you for reading and commenting Rachel, as always!

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