Free Will vs. Peer Pressure

Image credit: Alex Brown

by Bryn Watkins

I’m all about the aphorisms. Let me share one that you’ve undoubtedly read before, from good ol’ Henry David: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

He’s right. Not a single more encouraging fact exists than that of our agency. We are free to choose, ourselves, what we have for breakfast. We are free to choose how much of ourselves to invest in one enterprise or another. We are free to choose where we point our feet and when.

Hark back with me if you will, to a year ago when, during General Conference, President Monson announced that the missionary age for young men and women around the world would now be changed to 18 and 19, respectively. What an exciting announcement! As one who was 18 at the time, I felt my very bones buzz at the implications of such historic news. Sure enough, within months, the reaction of Saints everywhere fulfilled the potential of the change. The missionary force leapt from 58,500 in September 2012, to 65,000 by the next April General Conference, to 75,000 in August of this year [1]. What an exciting time to be young! That surge has parted the curtains just a crack for us to see how spreading of the Gospel will accelerate in the next few years to come. I hope it’s not sacrilegious for me to say that I find a certain danger in that surge as well, though. The macrocosm looks spectacular; it’s on a microcosmic view that I sense that some of my peers may be serving in response to the new cultural pressure rather than to some sense of personal inspiration to do so. I have a friend who finds herself currently in that battle of choosing to go or choosing to stay. She knows missions are good. She knows that’s what people are doing now. But the decision to serve a mission is intensely personal and represents a deep investment of both time and money. How much is she deciding for herself, I wonder?

How much are we deciding for ourselves regarding any of our life decisions?

This mission phenomenon isn’t new. I think there’s a danger in people choosing to go to college simply because that’s the thing to do; conversely, to work instead because that’s the thing to do. I find that peer pressure is terribly dangerous when we’re examining our whole lives lying ahead of us. Our whole lives! We need to acknowledge that we are our own protagonists, I think. Our peers should be the auxiliary characters, not the leading forces in the choices we make. I refuse to act like Robin when I’m actually Batman, or Foggy when I’m actually Daredevil. The truth is, I am Ironman.

When Thoreau noted that our most prized ability lies in consciously elevating our own lives by the choices we make, he did so, I believe, out of a certain clairvoyant understanding: someday young people everywhere would be growing into lemmings rather than the adults they themselves had chosen to be.

I’ve had a couple run-ins with this pressure myself—after high school, where the prescribed path would put me in college, I chose instead to take a job in New York; I prayed and fasted and consciously chose that path for my life, with the help of God’s nudges along the way. And after that year of working, where my newly prescribed path would put me right in another job, I chose instead to go to school; I prayed and fasted and consciously decided how I wanted my life to be this year.

If at any point in our lives we lose sight of that single precious power we have to live consciously, I fear we face the danger of stagnation and later, regret. While we bear no understanding of what the future has in store, wisdom would encourage us to acknowledge the resources we’ve been given to combat our blindness: agency and the Spirit. I have found so far in my admittedly wee and inexperienced life, that taking full advantage of my personal ability to elevate my life by conscious endeavor—through personally examined and inspired choices—has granted me the power to look forward only with my new questions rather than behind. I don’t find myself needing to retrace my alternative paths and examine the place I’ve found myself now because I know I am here out of my own, spiritually-sanctioned volition.

And I think it’s key to note, I have no delusions about my here-ness. I hope this year if I continue to endeavor and elevate consciously, I will be primed for taking the Next Step when it comes my way. I don’t know where that will be–maybe another job! Maybe a different school!–but what an exciting thought that I get to choose it for myself.
For all I know, in a year I could feel so prompted as to move to a lakeside in Concord, Massachusetts and write a book on philosophy! Perhaps go to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I realize that may not be the most obvious next step, but I’ve heard it worked out pretty well for some people.



Bryn is a current freshman at Brigham Young University and is chronicling her journey for us. Last year she spent a season dancing professionally with the American Ballet Theatre in New York and loved learning from the experiences that opportunity granted her. In her free time, she likes baking, reading, making music, hiking, watching movies, and road tripping around the nation with friends. She has many interests and is so far unsure where they’ll take her, but she’s certain to have lots of adventures along the way. 

6 Comments on “Free Will vs. Peer Pressure

  1. As for the mission thing . . . I agree that going ’cause everyone’s doin’ it is not really a good reason. I served a mission at 21; my prayers to that end were valuable and a time of great growth. One thing that has occurred to me in the past year is that the age change will probably put more young women on their knees regarding this decision. And that is a good thing. Finding God’s will for your life is transformative. So many friends of my acquaintance said at age 19, “Well, if I’m not married, then I’ll go,” but clearly were so hopeful of the first scenario instead of the default mission. I’m grateful that the mission is no longer “Plan B” for young LDS women. I love that if this is a thing they CHOOSE and feel inspired to do, it can be a seamless part of any life plan.

  2. I have found that the pressure doesn’t end, regardless of where you are or what you are doing. For me it has mostly come in guise of “I should take the fancy and flashy big job that sounds important” rather than considering what would actually make me happiest. It’s probably not popular (even with this group) to say that I have often taken the quieter, safer path, but I do feel like the spirit has helped me make the right choices through it all, and I am happy.

    I applaud you, Bryn, for following your own path and avoiding the censure, criticism, or nagging questions of those doubters! And I do applaud all of the young women inspired to serve who are taking the time away from their studies to make that happen. But it should be a choice between them and the spirit – society and cultural pressure should not get to make that decision for anyone.

  3. I loved this post. Bryn is so articulate and even poetic. And her message is important! She has a great head on her shoulders to be able to assert herself confidently at the age of 18! What a great example! Look forward to more of her posts.

  4. Bryn’s comments are spot on! We are the creators of our own lives. Sometimes our choices don’t make sense to others but as long as we feel good about it, that’s what matters because ultimately we live with the consequences.

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