My Italian art teacher is an older man with a receding hairline and his flannel shirt untucked. He’s a Fulbright scholar with the personal style of a hobo. We are 12 college students with previously-purchased black sketchbooks and no prior knowledge of technical drawing. Nevertheless, we will be released into the city to draw the sculptures and statues. Gesticulating wildly with a 2B pencil, he tells us, “I need you to give up.”
Give up. Forget everything you think you know, he says. When you’re a beginner, you aren’t holding on to the arrogance of knowing how to do something. You don’t have a pre-existing idea of how things are supposed to look. There are no expectations, there is nobody to impress. He’d rather we give up, let our minds open and see what we create. No standards. No pressure. “Just bring an enthusiasm for the task,” he finishes, arms waving, “and see what happens.”
What’s this got to do with you? Everything. You’re at Cornell University where the following message is pounded into your head at every career fair, in every group project, and with every internship opportunity email: fake it ‘til you make it. The old American tradition. You don’t know what you’re doing, but go along with the pack. Join a few good clubs, beef up your resume and smile confidently during job interviews. Follow your friends to the city after graduation to work for a start-up. Live in an overpriced apartment above a bodega until you get that promotion. The example is a tad hyperbolic, but you get the idea. You know what I mean because you can see it around you. There is an intense pressure at Cornell to get a high-profile internship, to get into a top medical school and to live up to the pomp and circumstance of an Ivy League education. You must be successful; the rat race is calling.
Abroad, I’ve noticed that success isn’t measured the same way it is in America. A career doesn’t consume one’s life the way it does at home. In the U.S., success is a good, top-tier job with a 401K. It’s a house with a two-car garage and an annual salary with which you can take your kids to Disneyland. It’s measured in a bank account, and work is but a means to gaining success. Your whole life will revolve around this job, but it doesn’t matter if you love it. It’s something that has to be done, like going to the dentist or filing taxes. Across the Atlantic, by my humble observation, people choose an industry not based on salary or potential for career advancement, but for true love of the work. There seems to be far fewer people itching to ride the corporate conveyor belt.
While I can protest all I want to the money-driven corporate culture in our country, I still have to get a real job very soon. I’m not sufficiently musically talented to make it as a street performer, and I am not the heir to any small fortune. I have no idea what I want to do with my life — none at all — but every chilly Ithaca wind whispers at me to do more, to be more, to make a decision and just leap. It’s the grin-and-bear-it school of life, nudging me toward a safe job after graduate that I would trudge to each day, filling up my tiny cubicle with the things I could have been, if I had given myself more time.
So I instead, I choose to give up. When you give up, you get to relearn what you want. Maybe I’ll go to Europe after graduation and spend a semester as an English tutor. Maybe I’ll be a ski instructor. Maybe I’ll go to graduate school to learn about philosophy. Whatever I do, I choose not to be bored with my own life. There’s no reason that, in our early twenties, we should feel any pressure to be anything less than exactly who we want.
Of course, not everyone is in this position. Some of you lucky suckers have gotten jobs you’re thrilled to begin or are headed to graduate programs in exciting new cities. But to the others, the ones who are headed down a path they aren’t quite sure they love: don’t be afraid to give up. Don’t fake it; you don’t have to be doing what you want right now. Give up the quest to do what you’re supposed to, and let the universe rush in. Give up, and you’re allowed to do anything.
My art teacher hovers over our shoulders, watching us construct poorly drawn sketches of the still life in front of us. My drawing looks like something the parents of a 4 year old would hang on a refrigerator. As a child, you’re told you can be anything you want to be. Call me crazy, but I think we are still children.
Ruth Weissmann is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A Word to the Weiss appears alternate Fridays this semester.