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.


  • Anonymous

    Well written and most definitely thought provoking. This most definitely encapsulates what a liberal train of thought should embody: dare to be different, be bold, be not afraid of change, be not afraid of uncertainty, be not afraid to be yourself.

  • pre-frosh parent

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I sincerely hope that Dean Salovey will take your advice to heart! It may ignite passion and transform the campus in ways no one ever imagined.

  • Yale 06

    Bravo, Noah! Dean Broadhead said something very similar at the freshman address for the Class of 2006, and it has stuck with me ever since.

  • Alumnus

    Some might think this article is a little trite; I think it is genuine and necessary. College is a time of transformation and self-discovery, not NECESSARILY achievement of great heights. People have their entire lives to achieve great things. I urge the path of self-discovery over blind ambition; though, ambition and self-discovery don't need to be separate. I urge all perspective freshmen to come into Yale like a sponge, and current Freshman who have already planned their next 20 years to test the waters and take classes they would have never considered taking before. That is how we grow.

  • Justin (Yale '03, '09)

    This is a wonderful article -- relevant, nuanced, and well written. Americans are seemingly obsessed with precocious achievement these days… but often you have to wonder exactly whose dreams some of these young prodigies are living out. The Yale College experience is incredibly precious -- "the shortest, gladdest years of life" -- and it represents a chance to define one's OWN notions of self and success. Society has certain narrow views of the Path To Achievement ("from homeless to Harvard," or witness the NY Times' preoccupation with the habits of the super-wealthy), but I challenge all Yale pre-frosh to wander off the beaten track during your four years here… you will be amazed at the freedom this can offer.

    (By the way, if you think Dean Salovey's comments at convocation approach hilarity, just wait until Commencement when you get to hear about your classmates who took 68 credits' worth of classes at Yale and earned "only a single grade of A-minus.")

  • yale '10

    this is a well-written article with awesome advice. all yalies should read it.