ZELINSKY: An answer to The Question

On Point

The list of interrogators is long: Parents. Cousins. Former professors. Current professors. And, chiefly, fellow students.

They all have one question: “What are you doing next year?”

I can’t complain too much. For the past three years, I myself often asked The Question to seniors. It always seemed like the perfect conversation starter — especially with a momentary acquaintance. The senior could say something snappy; I could respond. Awkward silence defeated. Score one for the small talk.

In retrospect, I owe my friends — the seniors of yesteryear, now gainfully employed desk jockies — heaps of apologies. Being on the receiving end of The Question isn’t too fun. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I suspect most seniors would agree with me: The Question brings our anxiety to the surface. We don’t know what we will be doing and we don’t want to be reminded.

As an underclassman, I probably did recognize how uncouth The Questions was — as I am sure my interrogators do now. And I doubt this public service announcement will stop anyone from asking a senior about “next year.” Why? Because The Question has more do with the asker than the answerer.

At Yale, success comes in a particular form that we all know but bears repeating — because we never talk about it. The ideal student is social but not a drunkard smart, but not a section jerk and involved to the hilt in extracurriculars, among which there is a clearly defined hierarchy. He should be spontaneous, entrepreneurial and down-to-earth.

And, most of all, the successful Yalie does not care about success.

That last criteria, to borrow from Joe Biden, is a load of malarkey. Deep down, most of us, especially underclassmen, are fixated on achieving success. How do I know? Well, for one, I fixated — a lot — as a freshman, sophomore, and junior. Frankly, I am willing to call the Yale emperor naked. We all care about success, and we care about what other people think about our success.

But don’t take my word for it. Underclassmen reveal their emotions too — every time they ask the “next year” question.

That’s the key to why The Question will always be asked, despite its uncouthness. Askers want to know that it’ll all be okay: that, at the end of the day, there is a job, with its own stamp of social approval, to top off their Yale career with socially approved success. Because, every day, they constantly measure themselves: “Am I doing enough?” Mired in the drudgery of extracurriculars they joined largely in order to gain a title, they feel the ambiguity of not knowing how to succeed — because achieving the right success at Yale is a very murky business indeed.

Sometimes, I wish I could fly back in time to freshman year. I would tell myself that that Yale is not an incubator of success. It is what George Pierson ’26 wrote: “At once a tradition, a company of scholars, a society of friends.”

But you know what? Past me probably wouldn’t have gotten the message. I would have thought that future me was a cheesy idealist. Or worse — someone unsuccessful, trying to justify my lack of success. Past me would have pooh-poohed future me and walked on, straight into the mess of anxious ambiguity so pervasive we dare not speak its name.

What did Pierson really mean, that past me would not understand?

“Tradition.” Traditions are long, unlike our transitory success — they extend behind us and ahead of us. They make our resumes pale in perspective, and they link us to something greater than ourselves.

“Scholars.” That is who, at our ideal, we are. Yet we never embrace it. We skim. We do just enough academically to get by passably well (for many, an A-minus in an easy gut).

“Friends.” That is the thing that gets hit the hardest in our quests for success. When we start judging, we naturally look to our roommates and say, “who am I compared to him?”

So, underclassman: ask The Question; know what it means; maybe, then, you can bring us little closer to Pierson’s vision of Yale.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu .