At Yale, we like to tell stories. Namely, our own stories. Whether preparing for job interviews or reciting our “bios” at senior society, it’s safe to say that we Yalies are conditioned to create narratives for ourselves.
We like having a map that tells us where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. Our story gives us reference to ourselves, something that helps us navigate the world and make choices. That is, some coherent conception of self that we can hold on to.
That isn’t to say that our conception of self is flattering or based in narcissism. We dig deep, engaging in self-analysis with the same scrutiny that we would analyze anyone else. It’s an admirable trait, and often a brutally honest one. We’re not afraid to construct unflattering narratives, or create stories for ourselves in which we are flawed protagonists.
But as different as each of our stories may be, we still have our own, and we generally tend to cling to them. It’s a habit that’s a byproduct of our campus culture as much as the result of the types of people we tend to be.
I remember my freshman year, the first question I was always asked after my name and college was “what do you do?” From the time I was writing my Common App essay until now, Yale, and I suppose, life in general, has forced me to refine and constantly think about my story.
This process does have its benefits. Self-knowledge in this form is certainly a good heuristic to determine preferences or predict your own behavior in the future. It also serves as a good point of self-reflection: to figure out what motivates you and what you care about.
But with these benefits also come the dangers of a fixated adherence to your story. No life progresses linearly, and at certain points, your story may break down. You may be left to navigate your life without a map to guide you.
This is a sentiment I felt when I first got to Yale, when my own story, like those of so many others, diverged from its projected plot. I’m sure this is a sentiment that may be familiar to some here on campus. After all, a consequence of so much talent being in one place is that there will always be top debaters who fail to make it on the Yale Debate Association, or former varsity athletes who stopped playing their sport.
And as a junior with the precipice of the “real world” starting to dawn on me, I’ve begun to get the odd feeling that something similar will happen again soon.
In my three years here, I — like so many others — have constructed a handy little new narrative that pieces together the fragments of my previous story before college with my new experiences that I have made here.
But I now know something else. The ability to cope with the inevitable break from your own narrative is vitally important. Being unable to take advantage of what you have at your disposal in the present — due to some set future you had planned — is inflexible, and only causes distress.
Stories are certainly good, and often necessary to help steer one’s life. But they shouldn’t be things we depend upon — they shouldn’t be things that we desperately cling to when the plot changes.
So when someone asks “Who are you?,” it’s fine to respond with “I don’t know.” After all, our stories aren’t — in a deep sense — real. They’re constructs that we form for ourselves, and they’re only as real as we choose to make them. We shouldn’t be shackled to our personal narratives because in reality, it’s us who have complete power over them, rather than the other way around.
Leo Kim is a junior in Trumbull College. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .