A handful of months back, I cold-emailed a professor to see if he’d be willing to chat, something I’d never done before. I told him I wanted to explore a newly developing interest of mine that seemed related to his area of expertise; somewhat surprisingly, within a few hours, he thanked me for reaching out and said he would be interested. We ended up speaking by phone on two different occasions for an hour each. For someone who serves in multiple leadership roles on campus in addition to his usual teaching and research duties, he still found time to respond to my email by sundown, put me on his schedule and then offer two fully-engaged hours. All this for me, who hasn’t stepped foot on campus since 2008.
I could spend 3,000 words singing this person’s praises, but that’s not the point. When I think about why I didn’t initiate conversations like this as an undergrad, why it took me nearly 15 years to come around, I’m reminded of an interview I saw with the great Amy Adams as she looked back on the beginning of her career. As an unknown and aspiring actor, she idolized the work of an accomplished movie director at the time: the late Mike Nichols. But when faced with the potential of meeting with him, her self-doubt crept in; she felt she had very little to offer him, and so she didn’t reach out.
They ultimately ended up working together many years later when Mike directed Amy in Charlie Wilson’s War, but this connection nearly never happened. Just a few years prior to being cast in this movie, around age 30, she seriously considered having to give up her acting dreams because she wasn’t landing the roles she wanted. Amy described intense regret for allowing her insecurities to prevent her from approaching him earlier in her career — for the moments missed. In listening to this interview, aside from her career success, I knew exactly where she was coming from.
As an undergrad uncertain of what to pursue and surrounded by peers that seemed to have most things figured out, I began questioning whether I even belonged at a place like Cornell. I listened with great fascination as intellectually intimidating Ivy League professors explained how, in between teaching classes, they would remotely operate the rovers on Mars or consult for the Prime Minister of India. Then I’d ask myself: What could possibly justify me going into the offices of these highly accomplished people? Why would they care what I had to say or that I was interested in their work? And so I didn’t approach them. In full candor, that self-doubt hasn’t dissipated much since, and I’m not sure if it ever will — I’ve heard many accomplished people at the end of their careers speak of their persistent insecurity. Even some months ago, it still took a good deal of courage to reach out to a professor with a 13-page CV; what changed was my willingness to fight through it, and I’m so glad I did.
It’s always great when you speak with someone, ramble for two minutes, and then they give you one sentence back that clarifies and summarizes what you’re thinking better than you can. The professor that I spoke with was forgiving, open, down-to-earth and patient. He offered insight and led me to some of his own research and his colleagues’ research, all of which impacted my thinking in a profound way. And this, in turn, recalibrated and propelled further my pursuit of this new interest — it’s reviving my passion that has been dormant for far too long. In the end, he thanked me for giving him my time.
My intuition tells me he is an outlier among outliers in many respects, but even so, there are scores of others that provide welcoming and safe spaces for even the most insecure of us. And as much wisdom as any single professor has within their particular niche, consider the collective wisdom of the multitudes, including the formal academic and career advisors: nearly any interest imaginable is the expertise of at least one person on campus. If only I’d initiated these kinds of conversations sooner and got out of my own way, maybe I wouldn’t have spent what feels like my whole career so far trying to establish my footing, my direction.
So, if you find yourself nudged into a reflective mood by the stillness of a moment — perhaps perched atop the slope one evening under a bubblegum sky — and you feel a bit lost or unsure, you are not alone. You don’t need to wait to feel “worthy” to sit down with another empathetic and open mind. That secure feeling you’re waiting for may never come. Professors spend their whole careers asking questions, pursuing truths, exploring new directions; if there is any one group that can understand what it’s like to have a curious mind with many questions and few answers, to be suspended in ambiguity, it’s this group.
You don’t necessarily have to be in their class or have a question on their problem set to reach out. Whether you’re seeking a new interest or developing an existing one, take some time today, or soon, to explore online what drives the people around you, and go talk to them about those things if they pique your interest. They may even gain inspiration from your perspective or a fresh question that you pose. But this part of the Cornell experience won’t lay itself down at your feet — it’s something that requires you to make the first move, to initiate. If it’s not in your nature, like me, to be a first-mover, consider temporarily flipping the script. All it takes is one step on your part to open the door; let these people bring you into their niche worlds. You’ll never know where it may lead you.
Rex Manchester ’08 is a Cornell alumn. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.