Through the Looking Glass: Who We Ought to Be
By Connor Watumull
Published on Friday, January 25, 2013
There is a security that being students affords us, [whether we acknowledge it or not]. We have to transition from high school to college, we have to pick classes, we have to elect majors and choose various clubs to join, but there are relatively few times when we are forced to see ourselves as something other than students. But, as many juniors will tell you, when graduation begins to loom, the prospect of no longer being a student enters the fold, and at once we must face the idea of losing this default identity.
Millions of students have used millions of cliches to lament the end of their college careers, so I won’t do that. But we do take to heart the idea that when you can no longer be a student, then naturally you must become something else — a writer, a lawyer, a painter, a banker, a teacher, Brad Pitt. Somewhere along our collegiate paths, we realize that studentdom is finite and then inevitably grope around for something else to be.
When I arrived on Dartmouth’s campus in the fall of 2010, I wore thick rimmed glasses, blue Vans and something resembling a beard. I was sarcastic and ironic and all of the other terrible things. In all my post-adolescent wisdom, I considered myself an aesthete with a knack for intuiting things about the world and how we live in it. I planned to live a writer’s life and orient my time around the pleasures of introspection and expression. So I set my sights on an English major, possibly in creative writing.
Over the span of four terms and four English classes, however, I gradually realized that my writing is not, as I had suspected, nuanced or insightful or even that coherent. I can remember receiving emails containing my professors’ evaluations of my papers, opening the files and turning on track changes so I could scroll through comments like “wrong...” and “deeply flawed” and “you aren’t doing what you think you’re doing.” I found that it took me three times longer than my peers to finish papers and that interpreting literary texts did not come to me naturally.
Realizing, after struggling through my freshman year English classes, that I would most likely never be a George Orwell or Malcolm Gladwell should not have been surprising, but it was still unsettling. My professors’ comments and my difficulty with writing suggested that something I considered fundamental to my identity was misguided. My passion for writing, while noble and true, would not be enough to launch me into any genre of literary greatness. So I began to reevaluate who I thought I was and where I wanted to go.
Many of us at Dartmouth are ambitious — by our achievements we are made aware of our own intelligence, athleticism, charm and more. We are surrounded by those who strive and accomplish — that kid who built the windmills, that girl who runs really fast, those bros who sunk all the cups at Masters. Achievement, be it of whatever form, becomes habit, lifestyle and addiction. We become attached to particular, perfect visions of our future selves, and we race headlong toward who we think we ought to be.
But living intensely and passionately, as many students here do, is as precarious as it is affirming. As we start to invest our time, emotions and aspirations into certain ideas of ourselves, rejection and disappointment — inevitable aspects of coming-to-age — become increasingly disorienting. To find out via a rejection blitz that you will not be what you wanted to be can feel vast and painful and empty. Not getting that internship, not getting that grade, not being admitted to that club or that house can feel like a dead-end.
Since my botched writing escapades of freshman and sophomore year, I have entertained other avenues of personal transformation. Luckily or unluckily, I am easily intrigued by many different walks of life and have imagined my possible future as a policymaker, a computer scientist, a ceramicist, an entrepreneur and even a Buddhist monk. Obviously, I will not be all of these things, and it is not likely that I will be any of them. But I am confident that my future successes and my future setbacks, no matter how uplifting or devastating, will force me to reconsider who I am and lead me to places I have never considered going.
I have also realized that constructive failure does not have to be life-altering, nor does it have to come in the form of rejection. Personal setbacks can include falling on the stairs in Silsby on your way to Macroeconomics or botching a conversation with that girl in the Hop line. They can include the frustration of searching for meaningful friendships among your classmates or the realization that you are not witty enough to send a funny blitz out to your house or club. But regardless of what form failure takes, it forces us to reconsider where we want to go.
It takes awhile to figure out that getting rejected by employers, love interests, clubs (still bitter, SHEBA) and houses has its roundabout way of making you feel like shit, turning you in a new direction and giving you new clarity and conviction. My own Dartmouth experience has been the pretty standard cocktail of success, failure and pale, directionless times in between. I have been and have aspired to be many different things, and I have accepted success and failure as legitimate, bittersweet and essential parts of finding my way.
In the years that follow my commencement, some of my classmates will win famous prizes, some will pioneer new social theories, some will represent the U.S. abroad and some will teach third graders long division. But they will also fail. And I will be right there with them.
Watumull was a former reporter of The Dartmouth.