This year for my birthday, I received a card that told me to “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.” Being the cynical pseudo-socialist that I am, my first reaction was to grumble about this mass-produced and distinctly American emotional trope.
But when you think about it, “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching” is actually fantastic advice. Possibly the best you could give for a 20th birthday, in fact. Why? Because it’s a request — no, an expectation — to search out the authentic You.
This idea of authenticity demands the query: Why, then, would you be dancing in the first place? If you have no audience and you’re still dancing, then you’re dancing precisely because you love to dance. You need it, perhaps. In this hypothetical, scenario — which we can substitute with anything — fills your internal vacuum. Your life means something because you [dance], and [dance] would imbue your days with significance even if no one knew you [danced]. It’s a compulsion, a vocation. This is “passion.”
The direct inverse of passion is obligation: doing something explicitly because somebody is, in fact, watching. It’s doing with the intention of being seen, specifically because (and only because) you have an audience. Here, it feels as though we are under constant scrutiny because — news flash — we are. Yale floats in a flux state of obligation. We act because of an exterior push, rather than an interior pull. It’s as if we are living in a constant state of Overheard at Yale — overseen in that Facebook album, over-read in our Classesv2 forum posts or overanalyzed by future employers. The ambition necessary to thrive here comes with an acceptance of always being watched. Or, perhaps more likely, because we know nothing else.
In other words, Yale is an Ivy League panopticon.
But that’s actually okay. Obligations, even if they demand quasi-inauthenticity, comprise a huge part of our lives. We have to make a certain amount of money, if not for us, for our dependants. We have obligations to our friends even when they’re irritating. We need to abide by the norms that buttress our society — and necessarily so. Dropping off the grid is not a viable option for anyone because our obligations, our duties, are essential parts of the fabric of our lives.
It’s my (patent pending) Classic College Process Advice: Yes, you absolutely have to jump through the hoops. But here’s the key to getting into your dream school (which is, of course, Yale)? Do something you love, and in loving that thing authentically, you will do it really well. That advice can be spread across collegiate life and beyond: Find the balance of passion and obligation.
That is my call to those of you who carve out the time to read this piece (out of passion or obligation, I don’t dare to infer). Be honest with your categories. Ask: Which is your [dance], and which is your duty?
Or: What would I do if nobody were watching, really?
I’m not talking about this very moment — I’m not asking about the hours (or even weeks) of downtime I wrote about last week. I mean in the long run — over the course of your entire life. What would you do if no one knew you were doing it?
It’s a question to keep in the back of your mind, an authenticity barometer, so to speak. I am not advocating for a pruning of all your obligations — that would be impossible without immense privilege and immense disregard for others. I am advocating for a category breakdown as a first step: What do you do for passion, and what do you do for obligation? Or, if we can rebrand the Hallmark advice: Would You Dance If Nobody Were Watching? And if not, then Why Are You Dancing?
Amelia Jane Nierenberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at email@example.com .