Credit where credit is due: This was actually a response written by a good friend of mine when someone on the email list we both belong to (the Yale Precision Marching Band discuss list -- a wonderful tool for procrastination among Ivy League geeks like ourselves) posted the question "What is the greatest downfall of college students?" So yes, this is a cut-and-paste writeup, and maybe it will die, but I like it enough to take the chance... and it's used with permission.

Fill in the blank: _____ is the greatest downfall of college students everywhere."

I'm going to say ambition. Everywhere you go (or, at least, everywhere I go, which are two very different things in many cases, I suppose), you find college students completely undone by their own ambition. You are surrounded by people who hate what they do and beat themselves up for being inadequately successful in doing the things they hate. You find miserable, lost people without any real investment in their education, and you find that, sure enough, that education is offering pretty poor dividends in response.

I had a long talk with some guy at a New York Yale Club networking session this summer about collegiate ambition. Anyway, he asked me what my plan/dream/obsession was, and I figured I'd be clever. That was my mistake, but at least I learned something.

I asked him if he wanted my spiel; that is, the plan/dream/obsession that one pre-writes and brings to one of these things in the hope of finding someone willing to fulfill it for you. I then offered, instead, to tell him the truth, which was that I was very unsure and scared about graduating, and I wasn't nearly as sure about my life as my spiel would have led him to believe. Finally, I bet him that 90% of the college students in the room felt just as confused, but wouldn't admit it, because they had worked so hard on their spiels.

He got visibly disturbed and proceeded to tell me why college students need to be obsessed by a particular goal or ambition in order to successfully network. You see, if I tell somebody that I am really really interested in, say, writing children's literature, and that I live for nothing else, I engage a potential contact. This contact will then say, "Well, I can't help you with that, but you like writing, and I know some technical writers. Would you like me to pass them your resumé?"

And you say sure, because that's what you do, and your resume gets sent along, and maybe you get a job in technical writing, in which you can be successful, wealthy, and happy for the rest of your natural life.

Whereas if I tell the same man that I was still entertaining the possibility of several different careers, and maybe found technical writing interesting but had other interests, I would never get an introduction. This guy thought this was the best, truest thing in the world, and he wasn't too happy with me when I gave him sass. But I digress.

Now, I know this isn't the way it always works, but there is a truth here, I think. There is a phenomenon wherein, in order to get anything worthwhile, a student seems to be required to convince him/herself that he/she doesn't really want it and display that he's/she's willing to build a dream for the sole purpose of destroying it to ingratiate a potential employer. In order to get something, you have to want something completely different.

Take banking and investment, for example. Now, in order to get a good job as a banker, you need to do a lot of things. You need to excel in dealing with academic graders, you need to pore over a great many diverse and abstruse texts, and you need to go out and distinguish yourself in your community. You need to be cosmopolitan and develop a love for history, politics, whatever. You need to reflect your urge to do anything and everything you do because of the sheer love of work; you need to convince your employer that you are compelled internally to bring to bear upon the world great force to the advantage of yourself and those influenced by you. You need to be a one-man/woman dynamo.

And if you are successful, you are hired for a very insular job in a small team environment where you work long hours in an office creating repetitive mathematical and pratical models in exchange for heavy financial incentives. It is not difficult to see that you are doing a very different thing than you had taught yourself to love. And you know you've gotten exactly what you wanted.

Where's the link? How can a person be so willing to create such inconsistency? You tell yourself that greater things are potentially resultant of your current life. You convince yourself that, although your current life is good, your future life will be much better, and you are justified in making sacrifices. You become ambitious.

In many cases, ambition is very useful. If you do not like your job, ambition can help you get a better one. If you are in a difficult or abusive personal situation, ambition can give you the strength to speak up. However, a certain sort of ambition kills the educational experience as quickly and nonchalantly as a Glock turned sideways.Your main goal in getting an education is to learn. Of course, many people disagree with me, claiming an education is really a way to getting a good job or a means of positively affecting your community and world. I say in response that the causal relationship between education and any other goal must go through learning. You cannot go to school, learn nothing, and get a good job. If nothing else, you must learn to work the system, but you are still learning. Learning is fundamental and self-evident. And, in order to learn, you need to believe in your own ignorance to some extent. To read a book and get anything of worth from it, you have to believe that the author knows something that you do not, whether it be a matter of fact, art, interpretation, or what have you. And sometimes you come across ideas which are inconsistent with what you have known or thought in the past. To learn, you need to be in a state of mind which allows you to accept or reject these ideas for their own sake. Ambition interferes with the establishment and continuance of this state of mind, and thus disrupts the learning process. Learning requires a basic openness of mind (not to be confused with the pseudo-political agenda of the same name). Ambition constricts your ability to react to and assimilate texts.

Here's a common example of how this might work. Say you have the ambition to be a writer, because you decided that this was a good ambition. Then, say that you read a book that claims that all good writing requires extreme solitude. Now, say you do not enjoy solitude, especially not extreme solitude. You are now usually faced with the unavoidable decision, should I continue to be ambitious to be a writer, or should I stop? Already, you have missed the point.

What happened to your desire to learn more about this text? What happened to your understanding of its context? What happened to your perspective? Suddenly, the only context that matters is your own context, and the only perspective that matters is your own perspective. If you had allowed the text to continue unmolested, it might have led you to consider other texts and develop more and more sophisticated understandings of its material. Your mind is unchanged. Once you have found this writer's opinion of your ambition, you have lost interest.

And this is as valid for Montclair State as it is for Yale. How many people from back home have you talked to who have said something to the effect of, "Alan Ginsberg did lots of drugs, and I like doing lots of drugs, so of course I like his poetry?" There's a hedonistic ambition blocking learning there. How many times have you heard, "That kind of stuff is way too confusing for me" from people who haven't even seen the stuff of which they speak? There is a whole presumed future and self-classification reinforcing that judgement, which comes from ambition. How many people do you hear making "objective" value judgements about people or entire disciplines based entirely on whether or not they find these things to be in line with their own ambitions?

I am a scientist. Therefore, religion is lousy. I am a painter. Therefore, accounting is lousy. I am an activist. Therefore, manuscript study is lousy. The trick is, you're not a scientist! You're not a painter! You're not an activist! You are a student! Maybe you will be those things, but right now, you aren't, and your ambition is forcing you to make decisions based on faulty data. You are a student. That is your occupation, and you ought to be spending your time learning! And, as such, you have no good reason to dismiss all these things so quickly. Once you leave school and become a lion tamer, then you can rightfully dismiss the value of operations research, but while you're here, by doing so, you're just being silly.

I'm as guilty as anybody. How many times have I said, "Econ sucks!" Plenty. How much econ have I taken? Zero. Why? "Because it sucks." There's an ambition there, blocking a potential opportunity for learning. But I contend this doesn't just happen to me. It happens all the time to a lot of different people.

This phenomenon has a way of building on itself. You block out certain possibilities offered to you by what you read, see, and hear, because you believe you need your ambition to keep you on track. So, you learn something, and you reflect on whether it tells you if you're on the right track. You determine it does, and you read more just like it, refusing to ever give the other visions of the same thing a chance. Or maybe you reject it, and you don't read anything like it again. Either way, your future studies are colored not by whether you enjoy your current studies or find them interesting, but by whether or not they are in line with your ambition.

So, you end up going farther and farther down avenues of study without any real love for the subject matter, simply because you've decided on some level, you ought to. Eventually, you hate it, and you hate yourself for hating it, because the immediacy of your own experiential life is something you dismissed a long time ago as not worthy of your respect.

Of course, I'm not just talking about overachieving or planning for the future. Living in the moment is another sort of ambition, where the conception of any particular moment overwhelms the actuality of the current moment, and one's intellectual approach to one's philosophy overwhelms it and spoils it, because it is too self-centered and denies the existence of the problem of other minds. And underachieving is another sort of ambition. Where causality is used in reverse, the same strangling dichotomy exists.

And you begin to apply them to your personal relationships. Who ought I to be with, in order to fit this conception of myself? What activites ought I to participate in? And you continually ignore the lessons of experience in favor of judgements based on your self-conception and self-image rather than your observations.

Sooner or later, you're where you thought you always wanted to be, doing what you thought you always wanted to do, but miserable and confused, thinking maybe you weren't smart enough or dedicated enough, when in reality you just refused to be happy when you had the chance.

But I think it's time to stop. "Lack of sleep" is actually probably a better way to fill the blank, when you get right down to it.

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