My junior fall semester hurled a lot of things at me. I started to love a new hobby and a new person, and I’ve endured multiple runs of the what-should-I-do-after-college overthinking rollercoaster while taking the most humorously difficult economics class of my college career. Ripping through audiobooks and interesting readings from everywhere along the way was a good escape from all of that. Here are six notable excerpts from things I’ve read in the last six months, and how they each taught me something important this year.
“Quite a while ago, I came to the conclusion that that’s how science works. There are lots of people, each doing their own little thing, like ants laying little bricks. There is not much use or progress from any of it. Then, someone comes along who synthesizes it all and makes a leap. Even then, some of the bricks will turn out to be completely useless. That’s how it has to be. I accepted the fact that I probably won’t be that synthesizer, and that’s OK. I still believe that the work of those little bricklayers is important. It’s necessary.”
— Michael Ter-Mikaelian
The decision to pursue graduate school, specifically Ph.D. programs, has been weighing heavily on my mind this semester. As much as sources have seduced me with the ideal of becoming a professor or an influential thought leader one day, equally as many sources warn me of a drearier [and maybe more realistic] future: a future that is full of soul-sucking labor, petty politics, unmet expectations, and imposter syndrome. I’ve gathered that a lot of graduate students, who’ve invested years of sweat and tears into their research project, may finally be confronted with bad or uninteresting results in the end. Mind you, most students are incredibly bright and high achieving people with shiny ideals like my own. Assuming that most of them, like myself, have been conditioned in earlier life to expect handsome rewards to come after hard work, a final outcome that actually yields no reward following some hard ass work sounds pretty horrible. It’s these circumstances, I think, that cause disillusionment and compel many students to leave academia. The quote above came from a guy who’s been able to find meaning for the apparent meaninglessness of most research. It’s no surprise, I guess, that this guy didn’t quit and managed to lead a long, fruitful academic career after completing his PhD. It’s like a marriage, in a way, where we ought to accept all the flaws and imperfections of a person when choosing to be with them for the long haul. It seems like we have to do the same thing with our careers if we want any hope of staying committed for the long term.
“So please don’t drink wine when you’re sad. Drink because you’re happy. Drink because you’re in love — with someone, or many, or the world, or the city, or the meal, or yourself, or art, or that cute dog that walked by and licked your knee. Drink wine because it’s a beautiful day or because you’re stoked on your new project or you’re just feeling good. Drink to celebrate life, not to deal with loss.”
— Marissa A. Ross
I’ve never struggled with addiction before, but I have pondered a bit about indulgence, be it about food or shopping or substance use, and how it’s not always easy to draw the line between what is or isn’t considered healthy. Self-care as a topic gets so much attention these days, and from what I gather, its definition could involve some pretty generous indulgences: like staying home for a spa-night or pampering yourself at the mall. What’s paradoxical though, is that it seems like indulgences are considered healthy only when you don’t need them. As the quote admonishes above, you should drink alcohol only to celebrate good times, not to numb the bad. It’s fine to buy an expensive handbag after your raise, but not before, when you were really hurting for one. On a similar note, I saw this quote in the comments section of a youtube video: “You’re ready for a relationship when you don’t need one.” These are all probably trying to convey the same message: that no indulgence can be used as a substitute for real happiness, and life’s challenges ought to be faced directly. Life needs to be difficult like that, I guess.
“I feel like I’ve been standing underneath an open window, just as a baby gets tossed out. I grab the baby, right, because who wouldn’t? But then another baby gets tossed out, so I pass the baby to someone else; and I make the catch. This keeps happening. And before you know it there are a whole bunch of people who are getting really good at passing along babies, just like I’m good at catching them, but no one ever asks who the fuck is throwing the babies out the window in the first place./…/ I’ve been doing my job, but who cares, if the system keeps on creating situations where my job is necessary? Shouldn’t we focus on the big picture, instead of just catching whatever falls out the window at any given moment?”
— Kennedy, pg.416. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
This quote came from the first fiction book I’ve read in years: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. It’s a dramatic story about an African American labor and delivery nurse who gets accused of murder by a family of white supremacists. I was impressed by how much depth Picoult revealed in portraying the complexities of race and social justice in America. This excerpt came from the self-reflections of Kennedy, who was the nurse’s public defender. The impressive thing about this excerpt is that Picoult points out the tough conflict between moderate (pragmatic) versus radical (idealistic) change making. While it seems at first that doing one’s best within one’s role in society is the best way to do good, when should we realize where society itself is being unfair and problematic, and that doing real good requires subverting it? Needless to say, this book got me thinking about tough issues and revelations about my own hypocrisy I’ve avoided to engage with in a long time.
“Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist. /…/ In A Beautiful Mind, her biography of the mathematician John Nash, Sylvia Nasar describes a visit Nash received from a fellow mathematician while institutionalized at McLean Hospital. “How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical truth,” the colleague asked, “believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” To which Nash replied: “Because the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.” Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill. And some people, like John Nash, are both.”
— Nancy Andreason
Human history has turned up many examples that suggest an uncanny link between mental illness and genius. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ludwig von Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, John Nash… the list goes on. It has always struck me that so much of human excellence and brilliance had to have been so tragically tied with inner turmoil, mental suffering, or societal disapproval. For these historical heroes, it seems to have been lonely to live along that thin margin that society ascribes between creative genius and craziness. Tons of respect for these people.
“ the psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. To maintain precious relationships, it is not enough for us to say and do the right thing. We also have to show that our heart is in the right place, that we don’t weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. When you are faced with an indecent proposal, anything less than an indignant refusal would betray the awful truth that you don’t understand what it means to be a genuine parent, or spouse, or citizen.”
— Steven Pinker
This excerpt was pulled from Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of our Nature. In this part, he discusses the concept of sacred values. As he and a lot of psychologists point out, humans are way less rational than we’d like to think. It’s not sufficient that we do all the right things, but that our intentions are pure as well. This puts people in binds where rational problem solving doesn’t always work. A good way to understand this is to look at the paper published by anthropologists Atran and Axelrod in 2008, called “Reframing Sacred Values.” Axelrod et al found, through work in the Middle East, that resolving intractable quarrels requires not just monetary or tangible forms of compensation, but deeper and more sincere concessions that acknowledge core concerns. Homo economicus isn’t real, and we can’t pay all of our debts in real life in terms of dollars or utility units. While this has troubling consequences, this quality of humans has made Homo Sapiens also responsible for some of the most heartwarming displays of goodness, heroism, and selflessness that even Homo economicus can’t touch. Humans are cool!