Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Passion and Intellectualism

I recently read The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, by William Deresiewicz, and was struck by how perfectly he captures the thoughts that have grown louder and louder in my head over the past year or so. One of his main premises is that elite education is not designed to produce visionary, independent thinkers, but instead is a system designed to reward people who know how to play the system. It pulls people away from their passions and pushes them instead towards those fields and endeavors that society deems as "successful". It engineers apathetic mediocrity.

As a simple example, when I was in college, it was considered a fine and admirable result to end up with a job at Oracle. I look back on that now and shake my head in disbelief. No offense to Oracle, which has built a quite sizable business, but here I was at the institution that helped invent the friggin' internet, and they were encouraging computer science students to work on billing systems at Oracle. Seriously?

But of course this mode of thinking goes back way earlier than college. I remember when I was little, I loved to write. I thought I was going to be a novelist. I have a 30 page handwritten fantasy short story in a box at my parents' house that I once wrote for an assignment, I think in sixth grade. There was some arbitrary word limit on the assignment, but I just kept going until the story was done. I loved it.

I especially enjoyed writing poems. That same box probably has a few dozen poems that I wrote during elementary school. The wordplay fascinated me. The rhythm of the verses, the clever rhyming, the ability to put words together in a way that no one else had ever before put them together. At that age, no one told me it was a dumb idea to write poems because it had no future.

Then somewhere along the way, I stopped writing for fun. Between loads of AP classes, and my time-consuming extracurriculars, there just wasn't any time for it. But beyond that, there was an implicit and condescending supposition that writing was a waste of time. I wasn't considering majoring in English, but it was clear that exploring the field of writing would just be a distraction from more important things.

Why? What's so bad about writing? Based on the average GRE Verbal scores of Master's students at Stanford, half of our new generation of leaders are practically illiterate. Wouldn't it be good to develop such a unique skill?

I didn't give it up altogether. As an undergrad, I wrote a fictional short story as a final project for one of my General Education Requirements (the professor read the first paragraph and gave me a B). Then later at Google, I rather enjoyed writing blog posts for new features - it was an outlet for sorely needed creativity that never failed to bring a smile to my face.

A similar thing happened with drawing. I used to love art. My middle school was fortunate enough to have an art department, and I absolutely reveled in the different assignments we had. I sketched for fun. I watched Bob Ross painting happy little trees, and locked myself away in the basement for a couple hours to paint my own landscapes. And then I stopped.

Why? Because art was another thing that would "lead nowhere". Because the farther along you advance in our higher education system, the stronger and more adamantly the fear of failure is inculcated into your mind.

I'm happy that the spirit of independent creativity inside of me never died. Whether it be a blessing or a curse, if there's something that my mind wants to do, it runs it as a background process repeatedly. Not for days or weeks, but for years and years. When I finally started listening to what my mind was telling me all along, I started to feel like a kid again. I read purely for the sake of reading. I started exploring a hundred different ideas which were lying dormant in my thoughts for years. I began to teach myself piano, because at one time I loved music, and the world of music exercises a completely different part of the brain than that of engineering.

The more I listened to myself, the freer I felt. Then one day, I swallowed the red pill and took a leap of faith.

You owe it to yourself to remember what it was like to be a wide-eyed child. You owe it to yourself to find what you're passionate about. You owe it to yourself to do what makes you happy. It's your life. Never too late to start making the most of it.

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