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(This is the abridged version. To read the original article, Visit this link: What Are You Going to Do With That?)
What are you going to do with that? The question my title poses, of course, is the one that is classically aimed at humanities majors. What practical value could there possibly be in studying literature or art or philosophy? So you must be wondering why I’m bothering to raise it here, at Stanford, this renowned citadel of science and technology. What doubt can there be that the world will offer you many opportunities to use your degree?
By “do” I don’t mean a job, and by “that” I don’t mean your major. We are more than our jobs, and education is more than a major. Education is more than college, more even than the totality of your formal schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school. By “What are you going to do,” I mean, what kind of life are you going to lead? And by “that,” I mean everything in your training, formal and informal, that has brought you to be sitting here today, and everything you’re going to be doing for the rest of the time that you’re in school.
We should start by talking about how you did, in fact, get here. They sent you to good schools, where the encouragement of your teachers and the example of your peers helped push you even harder. Your natural aptitudes were nurtured. You worked hard, you paid attention, and you tried your very best. And so you got very good at math, or piano, or lacrosse, or, indeed, several things at once.
Also there’s nothing wrong with mastering skills, with wanting to do your best and to be the best. What’s wrong is what the system leaves out: which is to say, everything else. It is the nature of specialization, after all, to be specialized. But the problem with specialization is that it narrows your attention to the point where all you know about and all you want to know about, and, indeed, all you can know about, is your specialty.
The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself. And of course, as college freshmen, your specialization is only just beginning. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements. As you get deeper and deeper into the funnel, into the tunnel, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who you once were. You start to wonder what happened to that person who played piano and lacrosse and sat around with her friends having intense conversations about life and politics and all the things she was learning in her classes.
And there’s another problem. Maybe you never really wanted to be a cardiac surgeon in the first place. It just kind of happened. It’s easy, the way the system works, to simply go with the flow. You go to a place like Stanford because that’s what smart kids do. You go to medical school because it’s prestigious. You specialize in cardiology because it’s lucrative. You do the things that reap the rewards, that make your parents proud, and your teachers pleased, and your friends impressed. From the time you started high school and maybe even junior high, your whole goal was to get into the best college you could, and so now you naturally think about your life in terms of “getting into” whatever’s next. “Getting into” is validation; “getting into” is victory.
Or maybe you did always want to be a cardiac surgeon. You dreamed about it from the time you were 10 years old, even though you had no idea what it really meant, and you stayed on course for the entire time you were in school. But either way, either because you went with the flow or because you set your course very early, you wake up one day, maybe 20 years later, and you wonder what happened: how you got there, what it all means. Why you’re doing it, what it’s all for. It sounds like a cliché, this “waking up one day,” but it’s called having a midlife crisis, and it happens to people all the time.
There is an alternative, however, and it may be one that hasn’t occurred to you. And that’s to have some ‘True self –esteem’. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that you got an A because you’re smart, that’s self-esteem. But, True self-esteem means recognizing, despite everything that your upbringing has trained you to believe about yourself, that the grades you get—and the awards, and the test scores, and the trophies, and the acceptance letters—are not what defines who you are.
Have some ‘True innovation’. True innovation means using your imagination, exercising the capacity to envision new possibilities. But I’m not here to talk about technological innovation, I’m here to talk about a different kind. It’s not about inventing a new machine or a new drug. It’s about inventing your own life. Not following a path, but making your own path. The kind of imagination I’m talking about is moral imagination. “Moral” meaning not right or wrong, but having to do with making choices. ‘Moral imagination’ means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life. If you’re going to invent your own life, if you’re going to be truly autonomous, you also need courage: ‘Moral Courage’. The courage to act on your values in the face of what everyone’s going to say and do to try to make you change your mind. Because they’re not going to like it. Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make. People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus famously say, about growing up in Ireland in the late 19th century, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”
Today there are other nets. One of those nets is a term that I’ve heard again and again as I’ve talked with students about these things. That term is “self-indulgent.” “Isn’t it self-indulgent to try to live the life of the mind when there are so many other things I could be doing with my degree?” “Wouldn’t it be self-indulgent to pursue painting after I graduate instead of getting a real job?” These are the kinds of questions that young people find themselves being asked today if they even think about doing something a little bit different. You’re made to feel like you’re crazy: crazy to forsake the sure thing, crazy to think it could work, crazy to imagine that you even have a right to try. It’s not OK to play music, or write essays, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is OK to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it’s not selfish at all.
Do you see how absurd this is? But these are the nets that are flung at you, and this is what I mean by the need for courage. And it’s a never-ending process. All you can decide is what you think now, and you need to be prepared to keep making revisions. Because let me be clear. I’m not trying to persuade you all to become writers or musicians. Being a doctor or a lawyer, a scientist or an engineer or an economist—these are all valid and admirable choices. All I’m saying is that you need to think about it, and think about it hard. All I’m asking is that you make your choices for the right reasons. All I’m urging is that you recognize and embrace your moral freedom.
And most of all don’t play it safe. Resist the seductions of the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly: comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control. These, too, are nets. Above all, resist the fear of failure. Yes, you will make mistakes. But they will be your mistakes, not someone else’s. And you will survive them, and you will know yourself better for having made them, and you will be a fuller and a stronger person.
Don’t deny the desires and curiosities, the doubts and dissatisfactions, the joy and the darkness, that might knock you off the path that you have set for yourself. College is just beginning for you, adulthood is just beginning. Open yourself to the possibilities they represent. The world is much larger than you can imagine right now. Which means, you are much larger than you can imagine.
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