Well that was quick. After eight semesters, forty-one courses, and ~300,000 bowls of quinoa ingested, my time at Kenyon College is over. That time was, if nothing else, hectic. Breakfast, class, lunch, gym, shower, dinner, study, repeat. A class schedule best described as time-warping. But amidst all that reading, writing, bad fashion, and stationary cycling, I learned a great deal.
Indeed, I spent quite a bit of those four years at Kenyon thinking about myself, my insecurities, my faults, and my aspirations. One the other hand, many impactful realizations had to be relearned over and over again, simply for lack of time to write them down. So following graduation, I wanted to reflect. To probe. To estimate my economic impact on the central-Ohio quinoa industry. For the next few posts, I’ll be thinking on important themes which arose throughout my time at Kenyon. I’m hoping these themes and issues are more universal than my idiosyncratic eating habits, and this space can be a place for others to reflect as well. So for the first post: simultaneously the most powerful and insidious aspect of my time at Kenyon, striving.
Like any fashionless, legume-eating vagabond, I am an aspiring physician. And this aspiration seems a good lens through which to analyze my relationship with striving and ambition. Of medicine itself, I can say little at the moment. I have learned a great deal from my sister and brother-in-law -- both young residents -- and even more from experienced, older physicians. I have dissected cadavers and pored over Lewis Thomas essays. Most importantly, I have been a patient -- scared, uncertain, and in need of a physician’s guidance. But a physician I am not. At the moment, I settle for “pre-med,” a term which causes acute nausea each time I hear it.
I plan to write another post solely focused on identity, but this seems a true statement for now: the “pre-med” identity is not one which rests content, nor finds beauty in the small things. Ruthlessly goal-oriented, the culture represents striving at its finest. Take these classes, this test, volunteer in these clinics, and hopefully end up at one of these prestigious institutions. Stand out, excel beyond your peers, do more.
Now excellence, prestigious schools, and standing out are not inherent evils. However, four years of playing this game has taught me one major lesson. Or rather, it has asked me a major question: what am I striving for? I read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air late last year, and his insights were compelling. Having attended Stanford, Yale, Cambridge, and risen to the top ranks of neurosurgery, Dr. Kalanithi came to this thought -- one of his many conclusions -- as he battled terminal lung cancer:
“Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past… Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.”
Powerful words, certainly. But Dr. Kalanithi couldn’t be referring to aspiring physicians like myself, could he? After all, physicians serve others. They heal, and bring hope. I read through Ecclesiastes, and the preacher seems just fine with healing and hope!
But of course, ambition’s dark side is not a utilitarian issue. It’s a heart problem, and intentions matter. A couple months ago, I spent an entire week studying for an upcoming Biochemistry exam at Kenyon. By that point in my college career, I had amassed a small share of success (albeit insignificant compared to Dr. Kalanithi, or even my own sister): election to Phi Beta Kappa, certain to graduate summa cum laude, receiving job offers and graduate acceptances from prestigious universities, and successfully asking a girl to lunch one time (I can't believe it, either!)
But even then I knew: accomplishing those tiny goals did not equate to fulfillment, satisfaction, or even joy beyond my next obstacle. What had they added to my self-worth or contentment? Not a damn thing. Nonetheless, I was consumed. I spent hours each day drawing mechanisms, reviewing pathways, and reading primary literature. Doing “good enough” was not good enough -- it was actually pretty terrible. Internally, I knew prior victories had only fostered a deeper hunger for recognition. Winning often bolstered my fear of losing. But my identity was in academic success, and the prison was built.
And so I strove. I studied harder and longer than everyone else. Anxiety creeped when productivity dropped. Heart rates heightened when I wasted too much time at dinner. Envy arose when my peers praised a brilliant classmate, without referencing my obvious genius as well.
But it paid off, didn’t it? I scored perfectly on the exam, in one of the most rigorous classes my school had to offer. I was almost certain to receive an A-plus grade for the semester. Time to put my feet up, no?
No. And this gets to the truly sneaky, insidious side of ambition. One week ago, at a dinner for graduating seniors, I laid eyes upon the most beautiful cannoli I had ever drooled on. I imagined eating it, and revelling in the delicious taste. And then I ate the cannoli. And then I ate five more. Two more on top of that. Was that a cheesecake on the adjacent plate? But as happens when you eat eight cannolis and a cheesecake, the food coma smacked me like a commuter train. Then came regret, and visions of the stationary bike the next day.
My striving often produced analogous processes, minus the cannoli. Like Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, or acceptance to a dream Public Health program, the initial feeling is always delightful -- validating, even. But that validation fades. With each miniscule success, a mountain is summited. But however big or small the mountain, the climb never ends. An entire mountain range exists beyond.
I seem to have painted a monolithically negative picture of ambition here. But that is not my point. Ambition, striving, pursuit of mastery are -- in and of themselves -- good things. They have produced humanity’s greatest achievements, and saved lives. A desire for greatness is often necessary for society’s betterment. But when we make goals to be our idols, that comes out in profane ways. Pride overtakes humility; envy engulfs support; and discontentment disfigures joy. It’s a heart problem.
So what do we do with our ambitions, then? For me, it begins with self-reflection and honesty. Before I took my MCAT, I faced intermittent moments of anxiety and tension. No one would have blamed me -- it’s a big exam. But probing deeper, I realized that neither the exam, nor its implications for my career, was really bothering me. Instead, it was my striving. I needed to do more, to be more. I could have made the excuse, “I want to do well so I can attend a great medical school, receive great training, match to a great residency, receive even better training, and provide the highest-quality care to my patients.” And it would have been true. But it would not have been the whole truth. My ambition was also geared towards comparison and pride. I would have had to add,
“If I perform stellarly, I’ll be able to remind myself of the score whenever I feel insecure. I will get into a top medical school -- a veritable badge demonstrating my capability and impressive intellect. Best of all, I’ll avoid everything that happens to those who don’t perform well. Poor kids.”
My ambitions are not to be hidden, or pushed below conscious thought. They are not shameful -- quite the opposite. People should share their victories and accomplishments openly. But if I want to help foster loving, joyful communities, I must also stay vigilant. There is a fine line between sharing and smearing. I need not be bashful about my victories, but I shouldn’t spend all my time dreaming and thinking on them, either. As Rick Warren put it,
“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
If minute brushes with success have taught me anything, it is that my most vigorous pursuits seldom deliver on their promises of lasting joy or validation. If they are the source of my constant dreaming and incessant work ethic, recalibration is direly in order. Recalibration of what, exactly? Ultimately, this issue is inextricable from identity. In my next post, I'll examine various identities I have worn throughout my life, and explore how identity shapes our structures of meaning and value -- but can also set us on a crash course for insecurity and discontent. Until then, I’ll keep striving. Striving for my goals, for exciting opportunities, and for others. I pray those remain the reasons why.
To read that "next post," and other bad writing from my now-defunct WordPress blog, visit: https://wordpress.com/posts/wantinghumility.wordpress.com