Oh! Sweet Nuthin’: Clear Mud

Opinion by Roseann Cima
Jan. 21, 2011, 12:13 a.m.

Oh! Sweet Nuthin’: Clear MudFor a lot of people I know, these past few months have been Application Time. Jobs, Ph.D. programs, fellowships, whatever you’ve got. Welcome to personal statement season. The game? You. It still astounds me how many people that I’d consider strong writers struggle with application essays. I’ve had the occasion to read quite a few applications for staff positions, and the phenomenon is obvious.

“I’ve decided that what it is,” one girl said, taking a break from her third Ph.D. essay mid-midterms week, “is that I’ve spent all this time learning to write honestly. In my research, in my writing. But here I’ve got to sell myself.

“At this point in my life, the truth about me is I’m uncertain about a lot of things, my professional life included.

“And that just doesn’t sell.”

ME104B, Designing Your Life, is one official response to this problem—evidence that it is widespread. Maybe it’s the freshman-year humiliation that carries these students past humble to downright shy. ME104B, which meets once a week, requires students to think critically about what they want out of their lives, what their strengths are and how to use those strengths to get what they want. A lot of students report taking the class just as a way to force themselves to allot time to consider these issues. Stanford keeps them busy enough that they won’t otherwise.

I’m taking the class now, and I am knee-deep. Right now all vectors are pointing at prototyping: We, as twentysomethings, are still in the early stages of the design process. (Those first odd years were need-finding, maybe. Lots of self-observation activities.) So we must not be afraid to try out lots of things! Go to career fairs to practice getting job offers. Try out jobs to figure out what about them works and what about them doesn’t.

This doesn’t eradicate the “certainty” issue. At least so far as the long term is concerned. They don’t want us to be certain; if we wait for certainty, we might end up paralyzed for life. I kind of relish the idea of an interviewer asking, “So how much are you willing to commit to us?” and the ME104B grad rolling up his sleeves and saying, “Well, what you have to understand here is that this is a prototype.” But to some extent, that’s legitimate. And once we’ve really internalized how truly legitimate it is, we can start executing these moves with conviction and start selling ourselves on our strengths in order to get what we want, without uncomfortable compromise. But you’ve got to mean it.

Mark Applebaum, Stanford’s resident experimental composer and wacky music professor, has a few pearls about conviction in uncertainty. You need to sell it, he says, and demonstrates by playing jazz with a mitten on his right hand, smashing all the wrong notes at all the intentional times. As an artist, he loves murkiness and he loves doubt. He once had a composition assignment returned to him because a chord was “muddy.” His instructor told him to write it again.

“No, it’s supposed to be muddy. That’s how I want it!”

“No no no. Write it again. And this time give me clear mud.”

It’s not about whether or not clear mud sells on a resume. For most of us, muddiness is inevitable, and it’s no good covering it up. It’s about whether we’ve learned to get behind that muddiness and shine through. With clear enough mud, we’ll have ourselves a prism.

Scintillating? Rosie wants to learn the art at [email protected].

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