Impulsivity isn’t exactly considered a positive trait. It’s certainly not a quality you would boast about in a job interview, for example. In fact, when taken to the extreme, impulsive tendencies are characteristic of various mental illnesses, including borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. Children are by nature more impulsive than adults because their frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for functions such as decision-making and inhibition, is still developing. As we age, we become more rational and learn to take better control over our actions.
Of course, everyone continues to act on impulse throughout their lifetime. We’re not robots, after all. We may recognize an act as risky, unwise, or even distasteful, but we proceed with it nonetheless, typically in pursuit of some reward. Learning to check your impulses can be a lifelong struggle. Sometimes the rewards are worth it, and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes the outcome is impossible to predict.
I consider myself to be a fairly sensible and cautious person. I’m sure any of my friends would back me up on that. And yet, I’m prone to making rather impulsive decisions. Now, I’m still pretty young so I don’t have a wealth of experience to draw on, but I want to make a case for why impulsivity, in moderation, can be a good thing. Below I will describe three major impulsive decisions I made in recent years that worked out to my benefit.
1. The gap year
I will probably write a more detailed post or two about this experience at some point, but for now I’ll try to keep it brief and to the point. Freshman year of college was a rough time for me. I had been rejected from almost every college I applied for and ended up “settling” for the liberal arts school both my dad and sister attended. It is actually an excellent school but I didn’t feel like I deserved to be there–I was certain I had only been accepted because of my family legacy. Suffice to say, I started out with low self-esteem and low expectations for myself, which carried over into both my academic performance and my social life. Meanwhile, I struggled to maintain an unhealthy long-distance relationship with my summer fling, which eventually combusted right before my Spring finals.
I returned home that summer miserable and heartbroken. I dreaded returning to school in the Fall so I simply decided not to. In the course of one day, I found a gap year program in Costa Rica, got my parents’ permission, and emailed a request for a personal leave of absence to the Dean of Students, who granted it almost immediately and without question. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I requested an entire year, rather than a semester, which was the length of the program I found. I didn’t know what I would do during the rest of the year, but I wasn’t worried about it. I had time to figure it out.
Taking a gap year is probably the best decision I’ve ever made for myself. I ended up working for three months, spending three months in Costa Rica, working another three months, then traveling around Europe for three months. In all, it was one year well-spent–a perfect balance of work and pleasure. That’s not to say it was a perfect year and the traveling was all pleasurable; there were stressful moments, times that I questioned my decisions, strained relationships, or worried about judgment from others, namely future employers. But I returned to college feeling refreshed and energized. I made new friends, entered into a relationship with my current boyfriend, and excelled at my coursework. My old demons didn’t disappear, but they were repressed, which was enough to make the experience worthwhile.
2. Traveling alone in Europe
Ok, so impulsive decision #2 is part of impulsive decision #1, which feels like cheating, but as I said, short lifespan and few experiences. I mentioned above that I spent a few months in Europe, which did take some planning and a lot of convincing my parents, who understandably weren’t keen on me gallivanting around Europe alone. I was a nineteen-year-old girl, after all, who had just (impulsively) dyed her hair bright blonde with pink streaks. I was going to stick out like a sore thumb in Spain, where I was headed first. To appease my parents, I signed up for Spanish language courses in Sevilla through a program that provided shared apartment-style housing with other students. I attended the program for 4 weeks, then made the impulsive decision to backpack around Eastern Europe with a young man (I’ll call him Peter*) I met at the language school.
I didn’t have a backpack with me–just a suitcase and large, vintage handbag. I have some less-than-fond memories of lugging my baggage through narrow, cobbled streets, uphill and downhill, and on dirt roads in the rain. Apart from that, I was a proper backpacker, traveling economically by train and bus and staying at hostels. I felt comfortable with Peter, who confided in me on our first night in Prague that he was gay. We essentially planned our trip day-by-day. It was the most spontaneous thing I had ever done, a bizarre but welcome contrast to my ordered lifestyle.
You might say I wasn’t really alone in Europe, but that’s not entirely true and not really the point. I did actually spend a week completely alone in Paris, where I stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment. Peter and I also didn’t spend every waking hour together during our trip. Even though I was around other people, at the end of the day, I was alone, far from my friends and family with no cell service and little Internet. It was a strange but fulfilling time, and I’m grateful for every moment.
*I don’t have anything bad or incriminating to say about Peter that would warrant a fake name, but I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s privacy.
3. Adopting two kittens
On August 8, 2016, the day I signed the lease for my first-ever apartment, my 1-year-old cat Luna was put to sleep. She was severely anemic, and by the time I found out, it was too late to help her. I never did find out what caused her anemia. She had been sick on-and-off all of her short life, but still I was completely blindsided.
For the first few weeks following her death, replacing her seemed out of the question. Not only did it feel wrong somehow, but her care had been very costly and stressful with frequent vet visits. I wasn’t eager to take on that burden again. Gradually, I warmed up to the idea of adopting a healthy adult cat in need of a home. I actually made an arrangement through a co-worker to adopt an orange cat that was being given up to make room for a baby, but the owner backed out at the last minute.
One day, my housemate and I wandered into a pet store in our neighborhood that was hosting an adoption event with Brooklyn Animal Action, a foster organization. My housemate and I lingered at the event for a while, ooh-ing and ah-ing at all the cute kitties. We had no intention of bringing a cat home that day, let alone two kittens! We were talked into fostering one of the kittens, named Willie, who was about 8 weeks old. As we were filling out the paperwork, we were informed that we weren’t allowed to separate kittens at that age–so we brought home Willie and his brother, Luca. Needless to say, my housemate and I fell in love with them and officially adopted them a couple weeks later, right around Thanksgiving. They have grown into the sweetest and silliest cats, and I have zero regrets.
I’d like to acknowledge that impulsive decisions haven’t always worked in my favor (hello, shopping sprees), but they have for the most part. There’s something liberating about going with your gut and making a decision on the fly. I’m a terribly indecisive person, and I often wonder if I should spend less time thinking and more time doing. Of course, once you’re a working adult with very real responsibilities, making a spontaneous, indefinite trip abroad poses a greater risk than it did in your youth. I also understand that the actions I describe above require a degree of privilege. But perhaps we could all benefit from embracing our free will and taking a little risk now and then.