As a kid, I wanted to be a lot of things. I bet you did, too. From music videos to videos games to game theory to theoretically doing all the things we’d made plans to do, we bounced around our basements, racking our brains and elbows against everything we could find to keep the synapses firing. Through the friction generated by all that moving around, we sanded ourselves down. We became well-rounded. And this well-roundedness — according to the chorus of teachers and parents — would serve us well. Time would pull us forward, and like the radial beings we were, all we’d have to do is roll.
What we didn’t know in our quests to be doctors, authors, engineers — the guy who waves the flag in NASCAR — is that we were becoming something much greater: Alephs. An “Aleph,” as fictionalized by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in his story of the same name, is a point that contains all points, simultaneously one and all. Sound familiar?
We picked up instruments, sports, causes, books, languages, and even some multisyllabic, big words! Here’s one: the Hebrew word אמת. It’s written as “emet” in the Roman alphabet and translates to “truth.” It consists of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth, then, is found in breadth, in the all-encompassing. And so, with one eye on Borges, one on the College Board, and the third on Jewish mysticism, we carried on, submitting to the forces pulling us toward “aleph” and “tav,” toward some salvation.
For a while, the world rewards such well-roundedness. The “and, not, or” philosophy that drives so many admissions brochures leads us to believe that the days of polymaths are not over, that renaissance is still an adjective — in the insulated world of college, at least. At Yale, that we should dip our toes in the water until we’ve pruned is a given. It’s one of the beauties of this place. We have at our fingertips seemingly infinite pathways, infinite opportunities. It is possible to do so much.
To be pulled in so many different directions by the wonder of each is inspiring, but opposite forces cancel out. As time propels us toward graduation, toward jobs, these forces often leave us feeling motionless. Growing up, we constructed ourselves based on the diversity of our pursuits. While being good at the flute and math and football and lists may not all fit together toward some goal, we were reaffirmed that our eclecticism, the sheer fact that we can do all of these things, makes us valuable.
But this construction of value is exactly what is so dangerous.
Growing up as overachievers, to be is to do, and to do is to be rewarded for doing. That is, to be creative is to play an instrument, and to play an instrument is to get an award for playing that instrument. But as the sun sets on the institutions that reward our pluralities, it is easy to feel as if we are fading with them — or that we never really shone all that bright in the first place. We graduate. We move on to careers. We leave the incubator that is the college campus. Our beautiful circles soon meet square holes, boxes: experience, education, skills. Our passions become “personality lines” on our resumes.
It is here, exchanging the eclectic schedules of our youth for a forty-hour-a-week adulthood, we find ourselves wrongly accused narcissists. Very few people are good enough to work as a musician and a writer and a mathematician, and as the applause of parents is replaced with money, as we march forward to jobs that—for most of us—will not reward the diversity of our interests, we can feel a number of things. A: I am not worth all I thought I was. B: I am such a narcissist for thinking I am worth more than the market is willing to value me.
These are traps, pitfalls we encounter in the negative space we are navigating, created by the inconsistency between the systems of value we encounter precollege and post-college. And it is in this gap, straddling the banks of past and future, pluralistic applause and a paycheck, that we have a choice. We can fall into the void and allow the school, the market, the world around us to determine our value. We can feebly try our hardest to keep the applause of our youth roaring into adulthood, to keep the value coming. Or, we can construct our own. You cannot be an Aleph, but you can embrace the intrinsic value of life, of eclecticism, of nuance, of being. In spite of—and because of — a world which often makes it so hard to value that which cannot be applauded or sold, we must value that which the world will not. We must value ourselves.
Eric Krebs is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .