The Problem With Dabbling

I was introduced to a game called “Cookie Clicker” two weeks ago. The premise is stupefyingly simple: click on an image of a chocolate-chip cookie, and your score rises by one. After you’ve accumulated a certain number of cookies, you can purchase upgrades that will automatically generate more cookies, staving off the otherwise inevitable onset of carpal tunnel syndrome.

It was just simple enough to be completely captivating. In between my work and academic obligations, I kept “Cookie Clicker” running in a corner of my laptop screen, gradually accumulating obscene sums of goodies.

The game boasts a full hierarchy of upgrades—with enough cookies, you can eventually purchase an antimatter condenser. I bought every enhancement and scores of modifiers and multipliers. My rate of production—measured in cookies per second, obviously—spiked. After roughly a week of intermittent clicking and purchasing, I was raking in over a billion cookies per second.

The game was losing its appeal, though. Once-inconceivable quantities of cookies seemed pittances, easily expended in a single upgrade. When I hit that billion-cookies-per-second mark, I could think of nothing but how long it might take me to double that figure. Watching the counter roll incessantly upward, I closed the game.

The realization that’s kept me click-free for a week was that the game would never offer any greater satisfaction because there was no goal to attain, no objective or resolution. No matter how many cookies I clicked, I could always click more. Without some sort of unifying goal, each individual click seemed to lose its relevance.

I arrived at this conclusion after an uncomfortably stressful week of exams and essays. As an indecisive sophomore, I enrolled in five classes this semester in order to check off my last Breadth of Study requirements while simultaneously progressing through the multiple departments I might major in. By Friday of last week, when I was running from one exam to the next, jittery from caffeine and stress, I had started to seriously question that decision.

During my first year I thought about one major after another, dabbling—as our administration encourages us to do—in various disciplines that intrigued or intimidated me. But by the end of the spring semester, I still had only a tenuous idea of my academic path. “I’m probably going to be a politics major,” I told people. “But I also might double-major in English. Or maybe philosophy.”

Trying to keep all of those options open without fully committing to any one, I imagined that my fall semester of sophomore year would be a quasi-epiphanic experience, as if clarity would emerge from my potpourri of pursuits. Instead, I’ve found myself frustrated. Without a clear picture of how my current classes will contribute to my elusive major, the time and effort necessary to balance five syllabi’s worth of papers, readings, and exams starts to seem unreasonable. 

That’s not to say, of course, that only classes within my undetermined major are important to me, but rather that it’s difficult to justify the workload I’ve imposed on myself when I can’t quite pinpoint its relevance to the eventual culmination of my undergraduate education. Staring down a Saturday dominated by studying, it’s harder to keep my head up without a solid conception of where that work will lead.

It’s for this reason I believe that “Cookie Clicker,” a game so rudimentary it necessitates nothing more than mechanistic button-jabbing, has important implications for students who, like me, entered Pomona College with no clearly preconceived notion of what they meant to learn. Without a major in mind—even an imperfect one—my academic work was starting to feel distantly but disconcertingly similar to my clicks of that digital cookie. 

I won’t argue that every first-year ought to choose a major before sitting down for their fall finals. I do believe, however, that there may be a danger in granting students two full years to declare their academic objectives. A major is not an all-encompassing definition of one’s education, but it provides a specific goal that helps to contextualize and give meaning to the sometimes-overwhelming work we do on a daily basis. 

You don’t have to give up dabbling altogether. But for those students who haven’t yet committed to a major, I recommend giving the matter serious thought sooner than you might prefer. No, putting your name under the heading of one department won’t necessarily make every proof or paragraph feel like a triumphant step up the staircase to educational nirvana. But it might make you feel like you’re doing more than just collecting cookies. 

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