The Mystery of Missing Dreams

Amherst College is a place of abundance. We have a plethora of intellectual thought, an admirably high degree of social and economic diversity, a formidable endowment and a surprising number of vegan dessert options. The contrarian in me was thus tempted to look for that which we are missing. The thing that struck me was disconcerting and fascinating — we have a dearth of dreams.

The lack of dreams at the college is not an immediately apparent fact, largely because of the lack of dreams in the world at large. Far from being conspicuously absent, upon superficial glance, dreams seem like they’re everywhere on campus. People are walking about with purpose. The library and gym are seldom left unused. Google calendars and personal planners are bursting to the seams with all the stuff that has been penciled in. Every minute, a resume is being edited somewhere in the school. It seems crazy to claim that dreams are missing here.

I have no desire to contest that plenty of things get done at that college — indeed, it is unlikely you will find a group of people much more hard-working or committed than the students here. What I cannot grant, however, is that most of this is done to any particularly meaningful end. We live in a world where hard work and busyness are deified. A generation of parents were influenced by Malcolm Gladwell’s call to praise their kids for working hard, not being smart. While this was an important shift from the obsession with intrinsic talent, the hard work philosophy did have a rather significant gap — what was it that was being worked hard towards? It is an absurdity of the age that “committed” is a quality one can possess, without also having a thing they are committed to.

Resume-building is a task that has poisoned the way we think. Peter Thiel, in his new book “Zero to One,” remarks, “By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse resume to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready — for nothing in particular.” The exercise of writing a resume is wrangling out a pattern from your life that embodies certain “ideal” characteristics — team spirit, leadership, analytic ability, communication skills and creativity. Most students are intimately aware of the features of a good resume — if we don’t know coming in, there are enough channels to ensure we do before we leave college. We are encouraged to use this as a blueprint for our lives — to run clubs we have little enthusiasm for, obsess over our GPAs, struggle through math or economics classes because these “look good,” and take internships we have scant interest in. We have disdain for formulaic films, literature and music, priding ourselves on our good taste. How are we then content to live formulaic lives which are no less mediocre? Perhaps the obsession with the former is a distraction from the latter.

It is hard to believe that it was always this way. No child dreams of having the perfect curriculum vitae, yet this has become the resounding consensus of what this generation of college-educated young adults aims towards. Yes, our student body is filled with aspiring doctors, lawyers, professors, financiers and consultants, but these are merely vocations. Picking a profession is comforting because it saves us the trouble of needing to consciously think about what it is that we hope to accomplish in life and reflect carefully on our actions. Instead, we can let someone else make the plan for us, and all we need to do is show up and hit the metrics, which as Amherst students we excel in anyway. We are becoming tourists in our own lives instead of explorers, letting guides lead the way because the chance of finding ourselves lost is so terrifying that we’d settle for being herded along and checking things off of somebody else’s bucket list.

We need to start being more brave, and be willing to really dream. Yes, the stakes are incredibly high, but to think that the alternative is “safe” is delusional — it is nothing less than squandering a life, an activity that can easily be returned to should plans not work out as hoped. I’m not saying professions are inherently bad or that students should drop out of school and do what they love. “Do what you love” is an irresponsible slogan that slips easily from the lips of the biased and tiny sample size of those who’ve made it in careers with a very high chance element. It is not about an enjoyable day-to-day experience but rather aligning daily actions with larger goals. In other words, “ensure you are (eventually) in a position to do what is important to you.” Less catchy, I know. What I am saying is that students need to think about what they want their impact on the world to be and then take whatever they come up with seriously. Professions are merely avenues to carry out work, so the focus should be on articulating the latter. “Making quality medical care accessible to low-income neighborhoods” rather than “doctor,” “understanding how to transform structures in companies to allow for social and environmental sustainability” instead of “consultant.” Not yet knowing what one hopes to accomplish and explicitly saying this is far more reasonable than pretending this is not the case, and dedicating a lifetime to keeping up that façade. Corporations, institutions and individuals are plenty happy to take on such people, letting them have their fantasy while really putting them to work to further their interests.
We must find the courage to think beyond metrics. This is hard, especially considering that on some level the reason we are here at Amherst is because of quantifiable achievements — high school GPAs, SAT scores, excellence at a sport or instrument. It is crucial to unlearn evaluating ourselves through these terms. The admissions office is at the disadvantage of having to quickly filter through thousands of applicants and need a consistent way to do this, but you are at no such disadvantage when it comes to your own life. It may be easier to determine your success by the number of classes you take, extra-curriculars you do, “prestigious” internships you land or honors you graduate with. (Easier still? Flipping a coin. Heads, you win, tails, you lose.) Later these measures become salary levels, number of papers accepted into “good” journals and, in a vicious cycle, the metrics of your children. You owe yourself better. To reflect upon your goals and actions takes time and space, and is often at the cost of meeting the very metrics I speak of above, but this is a necessary luxury. Sure, you might be a little less “productive,” but at the benefit of agency over what you are produced. Ultimately, some metrics might be worth hitting because they will help you get to a place where you can work on your larger goal. However, even here they are only means, never ends.

Earlier I said that dreams are missing from most of the world. However, there are very good reasons for this — inability to meet basic needs, poor education and a lack of exposure, amongst others. As students at Amherst, we have none of these problems, at least while we’re here. When we leave, we will benefit from a system that disproportionately rewards graduates from elite institutes. We have the rare privilege of being able to dream, so it can be shocking to realize how little we do it. Inertia and conditioning are probably the best explanations; even as I say all of this, a part of me feels a twinge every time I delete an “accomplishment” from my resume — that small loss of validation is tangible. It is hard to play this game and not get caught up in it, especially when we’ve been playing for so long, but it’s of life-saving importance that we do not lose sight of what we really hope to do. That is why it is so vital that we recognize as a community the value of dreams; we’ll then all have people around us who can issue a friendly reminder when we inevitably forget.