Decisions, decisions

Oct. 21, 2016, 11:14 a.m.

Sometimes, deciding whom to ask for advice is as fraught as the decision you need advice for. Anybody who truly cares about you will give you what they think is the best advice. But what a person thinks is best is based on that person’s values, and those values are soaked up from what they observe in and are consciously taught by their culture and environment.

A common answer to this is to take the advice of people who are where you want to be. At first glance, it seems like great advice. And when speaking in generalities, it’s mostly true. If you want to be a professor, you should probably talk to professors about the process and how to accomplish it.

But someone who has been in academia their entire life and never got anything but A’s may not be the best person to look up to if you are a person who has always had terrible experiences with school, doesn’t have stellar grades and spent their childhood and young adulthood doing blue-collar work. And a successful businessperson who started a business in college but came from a wealthy family and has its full support has only the most basic and vague bits of advice for a poor and ambitious freshman struggling to pay tuition. If the paths you travel aren’t similar, then someone else’s map is going to be of little help.

Whenever I came home with some piece of advice, praise or even commentary from my teachers, the response from my parents was always, “That might work for them, and it might be good for a white person or an American, but you’re not white and you’re not American, so do what we say.” My teachers might have praised me for a B+, but that was setting me up for failure because while a white guy getting a B+ was satisfactory, a black female Muslim immigrant getting a B+ wasn’t enough. I wouldn’t get as far on that B+ as my white and male counterparts would. To my parents, staying after school was for white people; they would find networks and community there, but those weren’t for me and wouldn’t help me. And for the most part, my parents were right. The path I have to follow for success is much more similar to theirs than it is to the paths of most of my teachers.

But then there are those pesky values, the things that define not where a person is or where they want to be, but who they are when they get there. Values are pesky because many times they are assumed universal, even though many of them are very much bound by time and place. Although both my father and my advisor have degrees, are successful academically and financially and reached that status in startlingly similar ways, they both still have very different pieces of advice for me. And ideally, one should take the advice of the person with values closest to one’s own values. But this becomes tricky when I don’t exactly know what values I hold.

I know I’m not going to listen to my mother when she advises me to hurry up and settle down so I can get married and have children, because motherhood and the ideal of feminine domesticity is not something I value for myself. And I know I’m going to listen to my advisor when he tells me to apply for a grant, even though it scares me, because boldness is something I value. But when I’m advised to major in something I love instead of something that will make me money, while someone else whom I respect just as much tells me the complete opposite, what do I do? I very much value my happiness, but I also very much value my financial independence, and I don’t know which is more important to me. How do I figure it out?

What about when the culture I grew up in tells me to value family above all else, and the culture I’m in now tells me to value my own success and happiness above all else? What about when my success and happiness is coming at the expense of my family relationships, and when building strong family relationships is undermining my happiness? What is one supposed to do?

I don’t know any adults in a similar situation to mine. So I did what is almost certainly not the right thing to do. I refused to make a choice.  I avoided making a decision until a decision was made for me, and I passively went with it.  I, almost by default, fell onto the path of individuality and personal success. It was a path I had been taught was morally wrong. But I was happier after that.

Unfortunately, I’m not yet convinced that I made the right decision. And I am sure that I’m no closer to answering the above questions, either.

Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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