An Academic Confession
A long time ago, I sent a thick packet of information to Yale, explaining in considerable detail how awesome I was and why they should accept the honor of my giving them tens of thousands of dollars a year.
They sent me back a short, polite letter, saying that while they were happy to accept my initial contribution of $75, they had plenty of other applicants, even more qualified and more awesome than me, all willing to pony up the tens of thousands of dollars for the next few years.
Regretfully, I was informed, the $75 was all I’d be able to pay them. “We wish you well in your future endeavors” was how they ended their brief reply, and they didn’t even follow me on any online social networks.
Every year, a large number of young people go through the same ritual—hours upon hours spent explaining why they deserve the privilege of becoming indebted to a system that probably won’t train them for a job. For many (not all, but many), the main benefit of graduate school, or even college or university in general, is a form of life avoidance: I’m not sure this is what I want, but at least I won’t have to think about it for a while.
When my first book came out, I finally made it to New Haven. I wandered the campus before speaking that night, drinking coffee at a student hangout and remembering all the time, money, and stress I had invested in the unsuccessful application. A couple days after New Haven I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts and saw signs advertising my appearance at the Harvard Coop. Back in the day, Harvard had also sent me a polite letter saying I wasn’t good enough for them.
Thinking about it on the road, I enjoyed the irony: I never made it to their graduate programs, but now I was speaking at their bookstores and campuses, my name on posters around the city.
It took me a long time to get away from validating my life according to something that didn’t relate to my true hopes and goals. At the time, I really did want to devote years of my life doing things that no one would notice, in hopes of obtaining letters behind my name that no one would care about. As ridiculous as I knew it was, I still wanted it! It was hard to let go of … until I finally did.
Part of it was the attachment to something of questionable value (a degree, useless letters), but I was also attracted to the linear nature of academia. I wanted to do something interesting and meaningful, and I saw a clear, if not entirely sensible path. Never mind that the end was muddled; at least I had a certain next step. Pay a certain amount of money, write a certain number and type of essays, complete such-and-such requirements, meet with various advisors, and so on. All fairly straightforward.
But when you venture out on your own, the next step is often unclear. You don’t necessarily know what to do at any given time, which is why having a specific direction is a superpower. There is no degree or graduation waiting for you at the end, and you have to determine your own milestones.
Graduates sometimes experience anxiety and uncertainty. What happens now? they wonder, confronted with the loss of routine and clear deliverables. On a path of independence, you get all these feelings in the beginning, with no one assigning you papers to write or exams to sit.
Having to be responsible, to make decisions about your life, to find something that fulfills you and matters to the world can be a scary thing. It certainly was for me, which is why I felt comforted by the thought of turning my decisions over to someone else.
Fortunately, I didn’t get what I thought I wanted. I paid the application fees, wrote the applications, and pestered people for recommendation letters all to learn that I would probably be better-suited somewhere outside towers of ivory.
Years later, I write these notes while sitting in a hotel lobby in Tajikistan, a place I had never heard of back then. I fly around the world and work on projects I find meaningful. I have no qualifications to do much of anything, yet for the most part I do whatever I want.
I realize now it wasn’t so much the acceptance or rejection of academia, an institution that may very well serve other people’s needs more than mine. It was the rejection of defining myself according to exterior standards, a system that was rigged to reward conformity by design.
Yep, I’m glad I didn’t get what I thought I wanted back then.
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