Your Graduating Class Lost A Soul
How a meaningful life is the opposite of what college prepared me for, and how to change it.
After finishing the Chapter on Life at 3AM, I emailed my college advisor for a leave of absence, sent an ultimatum to my summer job with full knowledge that I would be fired, and then budgeted a trip to Berlin.
I was a swampy mess of negative thoughts. I had spent the weekend with friends who were more commercially successful and more financially free. I took a hard look at myself and saw a boy in a man’s body, wearing off-brand Old Navy clothes, and still wrestling with “building a self”.
And then, a book told me it was all okay.
Enter Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to A Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz. Within the first pages, he champions the idea that a self is, “something you need to develop for your own sake, and it is not a quick or easy or even, often, a pleasant process”.
In his mantra, a college student should seek one thing out of university: a change of the soul. Those who don’t enter a conveyor belt: jump through hoops to package yourself into a Zoloft-infused marketable commodity, “find a good [corporate] ladder and scurry it up for the next fifteen years”, settle somewhere in the upper middle class, and become a high-contributing alumnus who coddles their children into the same chore. Attainable, risk-avoidant, pleasure-lacking, safe.
This conveyor belt is hiding in plain sight. It is your Goldman Sachs internship. It is your start-up entrepreneurship that functions more for profit than purpose. It is even your Teach for America programs designed to be “bureaucracies that schedule self exploration”.
That reflection on who you are, what you want out of the world, what the meaning of your life is, that is a dangerous thing for colleges because it might mean you don’t need them anymore.
Look at what we have come to. We like to think of ourselves as a wealthy country, but it is one of the greatest testaments to the intellectual- and moral, and spiritual- poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel that they are being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s going to make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.
So we are miserable, depressed, disappointed by the college experience, and nostalgic for the time when young people would uproot their lives, if only for the sole purpose that they were young.
What do we do? Deresiewicz suggests that we, “do for work what we do spontaneously…back when you were younger, before all the spontaneity got beaten out of you. Do what you would choose to do anyway if you didn’t get rewarded for it. Do the thing you can immerse yourself in for hours at a time….not what you ought to love, but what you really do love”.
When you really stop to consider that a meaningful life could be attainable (not without sacrifice, compromise, and the occasional handout), the world feels terrifying and wide. What’s more terrifying is a mediocre life which asks, “what could have been?”.
I’m happy I found this book at twenty-one. It’s like a good-old Catholic Salvation.
I had been giving myself chest pains thinking of how flagrantly I spent my money on art projects, wore clothes that didn’t fit, and struggled to understand the values that would rule my life. I’ve come to cope with that part of me, so that by the time I reach my middle-class surrender, I can know I lived a full and meaningful life.
The book is Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to A Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz