It’s a big pond out there.
My brother already hates his literature class. He showed me the syllabus yesterday, which listed titles like “Animal Farm” and “Fahrenheit 451.” The former is of the political satire genre, (which my ¾-college-graduate self learned from a Wikipedia check); the latter, I had read sophomore year in an advanced high school class.
My brother is 13. Thirteen. When I was 13, I had no idea what satire was, much less an adequate grasp of the Russian Revolution, both of which, at least from my Wiki-research, seemed necessary to understand Orwell’s novel. (But maybe memory’s fuzzy, and I’m doing that thing that barely 20-something-year-olds do to separate themselves from the next generation with a diamond-edged paring knife and artificial sense of nostalgia).
But, see, this literature class my brother is in isn’t for all eighth graders. It’s called “power literature,” which means that it’s the advanced level, theoretically designed for the kiddos in middle school who are going to be the next generation’s professional plot diagrammers. My brother hates it. Last year, he struggled in the 7th grade version; this year, he’s already resigned himself to the same, if not worse. Power literature makes him feel stupid.
The thing is, though, he is brilliant. My brother is fucking brilliant. He competes in statewide chess tournaments, plays trombone at selective competitions, watches YouTube videos about friction and gravity, makes hovercrafts out of plastic bottles and treats each year’s science fair like a Christmas Part II. With the help of YouTube videos and kneepads, he taught himself how to skateboard. With the support of my parents, he attended leadership camps in Washington, D.C. and science camps at Purdue University — only to come home, complaining that learning about gears was way “under his league.” He’s amazing.
But he’s not the greatest at writing, or at answering literature comprehension questions, and for that, he comes home feeling like complete shit every school day. So why is he enrolled in power literature, when he could easily coast by in normal literature and have more time to invest in, say, things he’s more into? My parents are part of the reason. Teachers could be another part.
But I think it’s more so this pervading realization that kids these days, even at age 13, are starting to get already: if you’re not on the path of the Master Plan For Personal And Well-Rounded Success, Version 2014, then you’re not doing it right. The Master Plan is unwritten but ubiquitously known: it dictates that being in all the best classes in junior high equals being in all the best classes in high school, which equals getting in the Best College, where you lock in a degree in the major that will land you the Best Job, which then, finally, equals living the Best Life ever after. You do what you have to do. You stick to the plan.
Then, the other evening, I had dinner with a friend whose little sister was about to start college. This little sister was a bright, well-liked girl whom I remember hanging out with, and she was going to a well-respected public university. The thing was, she didn’t know what exactly she wanted to major in, and so she was going to be “undecided.” And so all these people, my friend was telling me, were giving her hell for it. Because being 18 and not knowing exactly what you want to do with your life for the next four (forty?) years is not a part of the Master Plan. It’s indicative of a lack of a Plan at all, and to a society that asks what are you doing with your life more often than how are you, that’s even worse.
You know what? I think the Master Plan is madness.
It’s an assertion that I think, also, is hypocritical, as it is coming from a girl who’s operated on the Master Plan for most of her life so far. See, in the Master Plan, life is a pyramid. To get to the apex of self fulfillment and the perfect retirement, you literally feel compelled, inspired, even, to climb each laborious, mandatory step in order — that is, you get the perfect grades, you apply to the best colleges, you worship devoutly at the Cult of Internships each summer, and you never ever wasting time looking down, for fear of falling. At the top of the pyramid awaited Fulfillment, where, for a long time I believed, you have a job that makes tons of money, lets you come home at 5 p.m. every night, and never allows you deign to eat ramen again, ever.
As long as I can remember, I loved writing. Creative writing. The kind that parents and teachers try to quietly — and then not-so-quietly — nudge you away from, because who the hell even makes money doing that, except J.K. Rowling? So studying journalism was a way to get trained in writing and then be a jumping point to write novels, and maybe television scripts, too. And while I absolutely love journalism and studying strategic communication in the past three years, I know I’ve put all my energy in the past years into classes and internships and the Master Plan, the journalism edition. I wouldn’t touch my novel drafts, or my secret sitcom script, for semesters on end. When I’d tried to pick things up during a brief free moment, I would realize that, like trying to lift with an atrophied muscle, I could barely remember how to construct a good dialogue, or write a plot that wasn’t designed to sell something or fit inside a newspaper.
I would laid lay awake at night, wondering if I’d done it all wrong. Recently, I realized that at the rate things were going, there was no way I would be “successful” in the way I defined it as a starry-eyed 13-year-old who wanted to write books. Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with journalism and advertising, true, but in the same way that you never quite get over your first love, I sometimes still wonder about those poor NaNoWriMo drafts as they rot away in my hard drive.
There’s a ludicrously common theme among the peers I’ve looked up to in the past few years. There’s the girl who maintained a long distance relationship for two years and then became engaged to the guy within a month of his return. There’s the guy who dropped out of college to be the full-time CEO of a construction company he’d started when he was a kid. The friend who didn’t buy into the Master Plan as dictated by the Missouri School of Journalism’s agenda, and went on to find an internship and full-time job at well-respected national newspapers in the ensuing months. The guy who bought art and laid it on his floor to look at, because landlords’ rules about wall hangings didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy art from a different angle.
The upperclassman who decided to spend his first year out of college repaying student loans and driving trucks, who we all know is going to pull a Hemingway or Steinbeck and end up turning his experiences into the next great American novel. The co-worker who applied to two internships, total, in his entire life, and wound up finding a place at one of the best media companies in the world. The friend who managed a sushi restaurant while studying full-time, and then spent half a year exploring South America. The journalism student who helped come up with the best business idea that the MU Student Center’s ever seen, and also a mobile app that got an appearance on Good Morning America. The young reporter who admired people like Nate Silver and Ezra Klein so much that he decided he would write about them, and convinced one of the best newspapers in the world to give him the tools to do so.
These were people who broke almost every single rule you’re supposed to follow on the Master Plan. They were not cautious. They were not careful. They were not well-rounded. They didn’t do it for a grade. They didn’t look back. They ignored critics.
They walked up to that pyramid of fulfillment, looked at all the pointless, irrelevant steps and knew they didn’t need them. Instead, they wheeled out a cannon, climbed in, and fired themselves out into the sky, reaching great heights on their own terms. They didn’t follow the path. They found what they loved. And fearlessly eschewing our society’s rabid obsession with climbing ladders and relentlessly paying dues, they refused to wait, reaching out, seizing what they knew they wanted.
I hope one day to be so brave.
Future college freshmen, whether you’re starting your journey in higher education in a few weeks or in a few years, don’t set foot on campus thinking that the next four years are the missing link between you and a dream 401K. Give these years — and yourself — more credit than that. College can easily pass for a dance lesson where, if you hit all the right, pre-coordinated dance moves, you’ll be rewarded with the perfect job and the perfect life. But do not be fooled; there are no real dance moves. You make it up as you go, and if people doing the synchronized macarena stop to watch and hate, then point how how idiotic they look.
If you haven’t found the things you want to live and die for — that is, if you happen to be someone who’s, say, undecided about all the things you could be good at, celebrate how beautifully wide open your future is. You could be anything. You could be everything. So treat school as the testing ground that it should be. Try it all. Then, spend as little time as possible on the things you have to do, and more on the things you love to do. Trust yourself. Remember, there are no real dance moves. And if you’ve found your passion, and you know it — you know that you’re amazing at constructing bottle hovercrafts though terrible at constructing literary devices — then be thrilled and celebrate that. Don’t let anyone — especially not yourself — diminish your passion for fear of unsure futures or lagging behind in the rat race. You make those hovercrafts. This world needs more hovercrafts.