I’ve been thinking lately about the desperation I observe in many students. Frequently this comes up in context of competitive professional programs, such as law and medicine, where so many students seem to invest their entire sense of identity and self-worth into their applications. I find it very uncomfortable to be around such students, sometimes. It’s okay individually, one-on-one, when I can imagine that this particular student is likely to achieve his or her goals. But when it’s a mass affair, like some university recruiting event, where every second student wants to be a doctor and it’s just logically impossible to believe more than the smallest fraction will get there … well, it gets to me. No one likes to see dreams crushed. But in many cases the dreams were never realistic, or even a good fit, in the first place. What the heck makes a student dream so desperately about becoming a doctor, anyway, when he can’t stand science? Or when she struggles with essential math? Aren’t there dreams enough to go around, that students can’t find ones better suited to their natural talents and inclinations?
Of course there are easy answers. We know that kids get it into their heads to be doctors (and lawyers, and firefighters, etc.) from watching television, and from friends, and culture more broadly, and perhaps more than anything from family. That’s where the dreams about becoming an astronaut or a cowboy really die. But the ones that come early and find acceptance among family (law, medicine, maybe teaching) are far more likely to stick. That’s because we all crave approval and acceptance to at least one degree or another. It isn’t just about status and income. Sure, these elements factor in. But it’s also more abstract. We want to prove we can do it. We want to live up to the expectations of the people who believe in us, and exceed the expectations of the people who don’t. We want to make good.
I say “we” because I’ve come to realize I’m as caught in this pattern as anyone. In my case it’s more subtle, and I’ve usually managed to do my own thing even when it cuts against the grain, but I still feel the lure of mainstream success. Even in my 30s it’s still easy to get caught. In law school, certain career paths are simply more competitive than others. The competition to go work for Biglaw is fierce. Other options, less so. And it’s so tempting, so insidiously tempting, to chase those objectives just because they’re there.
When it comes time to apply for university, some programs have higher entry standards than others. Naturally there are reasons why tougher programs have higher standards, and it probably speaks well of those programs that top students are competing for spots in them. But that doesn’t mean just because you’re a good student you should aim to get into the elite engineering program when you actually love history. Of course you should apply to history, and screw it if the required grade to get in happens to be 10-15% lower than your own average. But it nags, doesn’t it, to realize that engineering students will be looking at you and speculating that probably you couldn’t get into their program. Then comes professional and graduate programs, and you might really love to teach kindergarten for a living, but the people who know what your grades are like are pushing you to apply for law school. Doesn’t a part of you just yearn to prove you can do it? It’s easy to imagine the cocktail parties in your future, where people get all impressed by the “successful” folks in the room, but only nod and smile politely when you tell them what you do for a living. It’s easy to imagine the high school reunion.
The problem here is that it never ends. You end up chasing promotions you don’t need that come with responsibilities you don’t want only because everyone else seems to want those promotions. You work for more income than you really need or can appreciate because money is a way to keep score, and then you find ways to spend it as a necessary stage in justification, but can it really replace the satisfaction you’d gain from spending that time in a way you’d enjoy more? There’s always another goal to pursue, another point to prove, another contest to win. No one ever really “makes good” in this sense. People just spend their whole lives trying.
I’m writing all this because I know I’ve been tempted to simplify this issue in the past. I see another class of students coming my way and I think, “oh great, 500 more students who all want to be doctors.” And I shake my head. But I too still struggle to let go, in other ways. It’s hard to turn aside from tokens of success, even tokens I don’t really want, knowing that people are going to judge me on the basis of what I apparently can’t accomplish. Yet it’s either that, or spend my whole lifetime living someone else’s priorities.
If I’ve ever implied that it’s easy to go off and do what you really want to do, instead of what some other person wants you to do, then I apologize. It isn’t easy. In fact, it’s damn hard. But it’s a vital skill that everyone needs to cultivate. Regular introspection helps a lot. You make time to think about what you really want, and how you can get there, because there’s always another trap waiting around the corner. As soon as you lose sight of your personal goals, you just fall into the next default ambition that’s thrown in your path, and start chasing that instead.
I don’t have any New Year’s resolutions, by the way. It’s nice to think, once a year, about where you’re heading and what you want to do with your life. But the best resolution would be to think about it more often than once a year.