September 12, 2022

LEVIN | Discouraged? You’re in Good Company

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We haven’t even made it a month into the school year, and many freshmen are already suffering the woes of self-doubt: those feelings of uneasiness that follow daunting life changes. If you’ve found yourself buckling under the weight of an overbearing course load, uncertain about your future, don’t be discouraged: you’re in good company. 

Nearly 80 years ago, the great psychologist Abraham Maslow mapped out the hierarchy of needs, one of the field’s most recognizable theories. If you’ve taken any introductory psychology class, surely you’ll remember the theory’s pyramidal ascent from the basic needs of refuge, water and food to the ultimate destination of self-actualization: when people assume their greatest purpose. 

Maslow knew the path to finding higher meaning best because his journey to self-discovery was tortuous and unforgiving, but he got there. Take his life story as proof that there is no linear route to success. Really, that road is marked with failure, redirection and the same self-doubt that many of us are feeling now. 

By the end of his first and only semester at Cornell, Maslow was a C student and left so discouraged that he almost abandoned his interest in psychology altogether. Luckily, he stuck with it, and now his work is dissected in nightly readings and reviewed in lectures; your top-ranked professors mull over his theories semester after semester in admiration. 

Sure, grades are a standardized measure of academic ability and are the most convenient way for a college to reduce your identity to a number. But they are not a measure of your potential for success. Less so are they a measure of your creativity. The only true gauge of your capabilities is your motivation, and, as much as higher education would hate to admit it, there’s no test for that. 

There was no sufficient test to assess Kurt Vonnegut ’44, one of the best-known writers of the twentieth century, when he went here. Like Maslow, Vonnegut’s time at Cornell was marred by self-doubt and abysmal grades. 

Vonnegut’s father was an architect, and like the buildings he plotted out with precision, he was unwavering and firm, commanding his son to major in a field with profitable career paths — certainly not English Literature, a waste of his son’s time, he’d insist. So Vonnegut studied chemistry to appease his father, despite having no interest in the discipline. 

He was a writer at heart, and no other path would suffice. After an unremarkable period, Vonnegut dropped out with no degree and only transcripts of flunking scores to remind him of his time here. But he never let go of his vision: his passion for the letters.  

Vonnegut traded Cornell for the Army and would go on to write his greatest work, his whimsical semi-autobiographical novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which protests the war he fought in and his traumas through the story of a fatalistic, delusional soldier. Even if you haven’t read his novels yet, odds are you’ve encountered Vonnegut’s dark-humored, Kafkaesque short stories in the classroom.

Vonnegut was a square peg in a round hole. It’s no surprise that his writings take aim at the bureaucratic institutions of power that limit people to their dullest functions, including institutions of higher education with their rigid rubrics and rampant careerism. 

Just as Vonnegut and Maslow struggled for purpose at Cornell, we students find ourselves weighing profits against passions, exchanging dreams for the promise of a steady, well-paying job and a predictable future. 

Unless your passion truly lies in computer science, biology, economics or pre-law, the choice comes down to becoming a careerist or following your true aspirations at great personal risk. 

The answer is straightforward: become a double major — right? Interdisciplinarity is honorable, but if you don’t envision yourself being happy with a career in one of your double majors, you’re not only increasing your coursework in a field that doesn’t excite you, but you’re delaying the inevitable decision between passion and profit. I say discover the subject or subjects that ignite your curiosity, and, when you find that, follow your interests relentlessly, paying no attention to naysayers and harsh graders. 

I’m no expert in the statistics of career outcomes. I’m certainly not a pessimist. Hell, I’m an English major. Yet, I firmly believe that we all carry in ourselves extraordinary possibilities, even the Dyson business students. If we all act on that potential by pursuing our dreams, we can reach what Maslow termed self-actualization and squash self-doubt for good. 

As Maslow once said, “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” While you journey through Cornell, remember not to sell yourself short; know that grades don’t reveal your worth, only your motivation and resolve to pave your way ahead can show that to yourself. 

Gabriel Levin (he/him) is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Almost Fit to Print runs every other Monday this semester.