Asking the Right Question Changed the Stars I was Reaching For
by Drew Holmes
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told myself, sulking at lunch in the University Commons. I was a second semester sophomore at Drew University and had decided to study physics but was struggling.
A liberal arts education creates opportunities for discovery of subjects that had not been on the radar when entering school and the previous year I had taken an astronomy course which had opened my eyes to a literal universe to explore. In speaking with the astronomy professor, we laid out a plan that would allow me to graduate on time with a degree in physics, the only subject available that would eventually lead to astronomy.
Armed with that knowledge, I had chosen a slate of classes filled with calculus, physics lecture, and lab. Most students would have started this as a freshman, so I was already a year behind. Fortunately, I was strong in math and had some AP credits, so while catching up would be cumbersome, it was not impossible.
Those AP credits were partially to blame for my current predicament, as they put me over the threshold of needing to declare a major despite only being in my second year on campus. My assigned adviser was chair of the music department, so I declared a major in music as a placeholder knowing I would change it eventually. When I had found physics, my path was clear.
But it was more difficult than I had imagined. I found joy in the stars but not in the esoteric classes and tedious labs of unapplied science. Finishing my lunch, I dreaded the trudge across campus to attend another physics lab. Why was I doing this? Should I make a change?
I was reminded of that day recently while reading an Inc. Magazine article by Jessica Stillman exploring a basic concept for solving any large problem. In it, she says faced with a large problem our impulse is to incorrectly ask “What should I do?” As a counter to that line of thinking she cites a Harvard study from 2018 which states:
Although individuals intuitively consider the question “What should I do?” when contemplating moral dilemmas, we find that prompting people to consider “What could I do?” helps them generate moral insight.
This subtle shift in mindset allows for a broader array of solutions. Rather than limit us to what we should be doing based on the expected outcome, it opens our minds to ideas that never would have been considered in the first place.
As I was clearing my lunch tray, a thought incurred to me. What if I did not change my major? What if, instead of pursuing unfulfilling coursework with the eventual goal of doing something I might enjoy I instead focus on what is meaningful to me? What if I doubled down and focused on music?
So that’s what I did. Instead of going to lab (what I “should” have done) I went to the music building and spent the afternoon with my trumpet in the practice room. In the moment the plan was no bigger than that, but I knew what I could do that day. Later days and weeks would see courses dropped, plans made and unmade, but those were future challenges.
After that my schooling included internships with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony. Post-graduation I worked for numerous orchestras and music festivals as well as a sheet music retailer. These experiences led to working for a small family run music store and the knowledge gained there serves me well today owning a store of my own.
None of those experience would have happened if I stayed on the path of “should” and discounted the idea of “could”. That day at lunch there was no way to see the twists and turns this path has taken. But asking the correct question has guided me every step of the way. And that has made all the difference.