At Yale, take risks, discover passions yet unknown

What makes Bulldog Days in April and Camp Yale in September fascinating is that, in every way, they encapsulate the Yale experience: not only its wonderful energy, but also its anxiety. During these times, Yale deans often trumpet the impressive things that Yalies do — giving examples so preposterously impressive as to approach hilarity. At my freshman convocation, Dean Salovey told the story of Rob McGinnis ’02, who, while at Yale, discovered and patented the first desalination method that is “both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.” Salovey concluded, “Did I fail to mention that Rob was a Theater Studies major who wrote a play for his senior project and continues to write them today?”

If we laugh, it is because — after high school years packed with late-night toil, to assemble the achievements necessary to enter an intellectual Eden like Yale — we now fear that maybe, once again, we’re just not good enough. I wonder how many freshmen left that convocation thinking, “I have only four years to revolutionize desalination while writing senior project-worthy plays!” Thus regenerates the tradition of Yale self-doubt.

This trend does not stop at Yale’s gates. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof dubbed our time “the Age of Ambition” in a column earlier this year. Neglecting to address this age’s dark underside, he gushed that “the most interesting people here” at Switzerland’s World Economic Forum are the “growing numbers of young … social entrepreneurs.” Kristof hailed Orphans Against AIDS founder Andrew Klaber ’04, “a 26-year-old playing hooky from Harvard Business School to come here (don’t tell his professors!).” Attending the World Economic Forum is as far from hooky as it gets. He described Jennifer Staple ’03, who, as a college sophomore, began “an organization in her dorm room” to gather “reading glasses” for “poor countries.” Staple’s group, Unite for Sight, aided 200,000 people in 2007.

McGinnis, Klaber and Staple merit praise for improving our world. But adults should know that compulsively heralding such achievements sends our generation an onerous message: You must be absurdly well-credentialed just to be noticed.

Infamous, phony über-achievers — like Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard student who, while in high school, wrote (er, plagiarized) a hit novel — are canaries in the mine-shaft. Viswanathan’s response to our era’s pressure is uncommon and vile. But the pressure she responded to is common and real.

This culture also radiates a perverse social ethic: You matter not for how you improve others’ lives, but for how you get credit for improving others’ lives. In high school and college, if you offer, for instance, to join people sitting alone in the dining hall, admissions officers and Kristof will never know. If you found a multinational organization, they will. The result is legions of young achievers who either feel infatuated with the world’s congratulations, or who long for such and elude any use of time that cannot stud a résumé. Sincerity is inefficient. We are trained to be masters of the charity industry — not charitable people.

The mega-achieving culture’s worst victim, ironically, is genuine achievement. One night my sophomore year, I tossed a frisbee with a friend, a freshman, who said: “I’m supposed to have a passion. I just don’t know what it is yet. Is that OK?”

This question highlights the problem with heralding McGinnis at convocation: It suggests that freshmen must start planning how they, too, will revolutionize the field of their passion, as if one can choose a passion a priori, sitting in Woolsey’s seats.

But finding a passion means trying many things, thinking about them and realizing which ones move you. This takes time. Of course, it is OK for a freshman not to have a single passion yet.

Moreover, this model of experimenting with potential passions includes a risk: You might not find one. That way, when you do, it is not out of sheer need for something to like. It is because the thing itself summons passion in you. This risk is what Kingman Brewster, Yale’s president from 1963-1977, called “the privilege of doubt.” American liberal arts colleges were meant to be places where it is safe to take that risk.

What might Dean Salovey have said after telling McGinnis’ story? What will he say at Bulldog Days today? Here is my suggestion:

“I know what you’re thinking: ‘A college kid, revolutionizing desalination while writing plays? Absurd. I can hardly choose courses!’ But when McGinnis was a freshman, I bet he felt the same fears. Too often in our culture, it seems that either you are smugly and rapidly amassing achievements — or you are inadequate. But a third option exists. Remember, the most meaningful progress — professional, spiritual, societal — is often gradual. It does not suffer deadlines. It cannot always be foreseen. So the route to true passions and achievements begins with the only thing you actually can foresee: how to be yourself, doing what you love and being good to others. You can reject both smugness and inadequacy. You must.

“So dare to be secure, generous, studious and sincere. If that’s not ‘Lux et Veritas,’ what is?”

Noah Lawrence is a junior in Saybrook College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays.

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