The Stanford Fig Tree, or what to do with your life

Jan. 23, 2017, 6:53 a.m.
(JANET LIU/The Stanford Daily)

The “real world” looms nigh, in the shape of caps and gowns, disposable income and questionable domestic policies.

With each passing year, more and more of the decisions we make will make a significant and probably irrevocable impact on the trajectory of our lives (e.g. voting, eating pizza every day for lunch, binge-watching Netflix with no chill). It’s kind of a scary thought — like how you’re one step closer to dying with every breath you take, but a lot faster.

Sylvia Plath conjures up an eerily apprehensive scene in her novel “The Bell Jar”:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Of all the fig trees you could sit in the crotch of, Stanford is one of the most fertile and luxurious designer fig trees you can find. Here, the implicit credo that every life has unlimited potential is manifested in a smorgasbord of opportunities, a long line of illustrious predecessors and an insanely talented and passionate student body.

There’s an obscenely long list of “notable” Stanford graduates on Wikipedia. Paraded before your eyes is the sheer magnitude of who you could be and what you can do: We have 20 Nobel Laureates, world-record-holding athletes (280 Olympic medals and counting), high-profile government officials and activists, pioneers in academia, entrepreneurs with business staples in malls, neighborhoods and electronics worldwide, and innumerable prize-winning artists, musicians, writers and alumni in every other category of success. You can’t get a sandwich at CoHo without being starstruck with caricatures of alumni who have broken into the mainstream consciousness. And since you received that acceptance letter, you’ve been stamped with the institutional confidence that you could be just as good and more. In fact, you probably got here because you were pretty good at many of these things — a “well-rounded,” multifaceted individual with incredible potential.

And to think that every one of them started from where you are now — hundreds of organizations and infinite areas of study at your fingertips, with events on the usefulness of some particular major every other week (in case you were worried). Not to be alarmist, but it’s terrifying to think that each and every class and activity you choose and do not choose has the potential to change your life irrevocably. The possibilities dangle tantalizingly from the branches of the tree, still green and waiting for you to reach up and take them. And beyond what you can immediately see, there are so many possibilities that we haven’t yet perceived to be possible.  

Of course, there are some people who have already taken their pick and are sucking as much juice out of that fig as they can. This is that one person who somehow knew they were going to be a doctor from the womb and probably would have conceived themselves if they’d had the agency to do so. This is that one person who has already founded a Fortune 500 company or published 15 first-author articles and four novels by the time they graduate. This is also that one person obsessed with that one particular cause, who’s done incomparable advocacy work and isn’t afraid to show it in the fervor and magnitude of their Facebook shares. Many are probably following their 20-year plan exactly as they planned it, have already finished that grant application due four years from now. They are, as we say, “uber passionate.”

So we find our friends and classmates whispering their hopes and dreams to their overheating laptops at 4:58 a.m. in the morning, firm in their belief that all of their sweat and hard toil is “worth it.” For we who have failed to specialize so quickly, the pressure to find “that one thing” only builds.

And we how could we forget the high premium it costs to enter this orchard and stare placidly at the figs of possibility hanging over our heads? Based on the 2016-17 academic year pricing, it costs around $266,784 to contemplate under the fig tree for four years, or $317.60 per day. To put it in a more concrete perspective, you could buy four new luxury midsize SUVs (or 14 or so 2017 Toyota Corollas, for the fuel-efficient) by the time you graduate. You could also buy 72 years’ worth of groceries for an average American family of four on a “liberal food plan.” Basking in the faux-tropical Californian sunshine shining through the overhanging palm fronds isn’t quite a free lunch (nor the “free lunches” you get from those info sessions). With all the sacrifices you and those who have supported you have made, there’s almost a moral imperative to maximize the worth that has been placed on you, and a strong pressure to make that investment worthwhile in the form of astronomical success.

But what does success look like, in the context of the privileges with which we’ve been endowed?

Is it fame? Wealth? Historical social and cultural impact? World domination? Though we might say that we should follow whatever suits our heart’s content, it’s hard to ignore the fact that “success” on this campus is often tinged with the golden glow of prestige. There’s a reason why only four people might show up to a pre-nursing information session, and a talk on an “untraditional” pre-medical pathway can fill CEMEX auditorium. There’s a reason why there are multiple student pre-professional organizations and sources of advising for some areas of interest and comparatively few for others. There’s a reason why certain responses to the “What do you want to do post-graduation?” will garner a standard nod and others a raised eyebrow of surprise and confusion. Beneath the magnanimous rhetoric to follow our dreams and passions in the vacuum of our personal preferences and beliefs, there’s an understated obligation to pursue something that will ostensibly secure you a stable income, give you a place in the upper echelons of society, make your parents proud to tell their friends, wow your friends, disgruntle your enemies. And if not one of the “traditional” pathways, then something that will get your name amidst the most influential and the most achieved — a leader of the field.

This is not to say that we should settle for any less — a drive for “success” and a vaguely paralyzing existential fear of failure probably played a partial role in how we got here in the first place. But as we stare up at those pretty figs of possibility hanging above us, our eyes are clouded with a fear of regret (that we’ll make the wrong decision, that we won’t meet our full potential), failure (that we’re just not good enough), disappointment (that we’ll let our mentors, families and communities down) and shame (that we don’t deserve to be here in the first place). Standing before these futures, we are caught in the cognitive dissonance of a Sartrean freedom that cannot be extricated from its context without struggle.

But it’s overly dramatic and patently false to say that your life ultimately hinges on what you immediately do or seek to pursue post-graduation. There is no one ultimate “such-a-good-fit-that-you-love-each-and-every-day-you’re-working-and-you-only-ever-want-to-do-this-for-the-rest-of-your-life-and-you’d-probably-continue-working-remotely-and-telecommute-from-the-grave-if-you-could” career, and those who profess it to be so speak for a model that doesn’t reflect reality. The majority of millennials in the work force job-hop and are open to switching careers into completely different industries. Previous generations of college graduates were not that different. At best, you can aim for a 20:80 satisfaction ratio as you take your second, third, fourth, fifth, fifteenth chance in the landing-the-dream-job game.

But the fact of the matter is that in spite of the possibility of change, you will have to make a decision. Though no choice need be mutually exclusive, you will likely have to sacrifice parts of yourself in order to move forward.

And as absurd as it may sound to the implicitly accepted and performed purpose of higher education (i.e., that of securing a job), we don’t just live for a job. There is more to life than the hoops we jump through or the structures of living that allow for a high-performing, mechanical existence. As others have made sacrifices for us to become who we are today, so will we give back and make sacrifices for those others who will come to matter so much more than what’s on our resumes. A job is the means to an end — not necessarily the end itself. And the process of finding out exactly what is worth living and fighting for is an understated part of higher education that should never be secondary.

So how do we choose?

Some people take a rather algorithmic approach to it. Some go with their gut. Think about what keeps you voluntarily up at night and awake in class; what you avoid, never show up to and procrastinate on; what gives you dread and what you leaves you in awe. Try everything, then start dropping them one by one. If something makes you hot and bothered (if you know what I mean), dig a little deeper as to why. Shadow, talk to others, research and question your assumptions and motivations. Figure out the fundamental difference of why this and not that. Don’t let shame or pressure force you into something you can’t imagine getting out of bed for, and don’t let anyone intimidate you into giving up when you hit barriers, walls and glass ceilings. And remember that life happens — tragedies and serendipities will inevitably derail our 20-year plans (something about mice and men, running around the fig tree). As Barack Obama told the last internship class of his administration, “Be kind, be useful, be fearless.” Each choice opens and closes a door — and that’s OK.

There, up in the fig tree, are an unimaginable number of potential you’s that will never come into being. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to sit underneath these branches and imagine which one we’ll choose. But we can’t settle for possibility — for an “I could have been…” or an “If I had more time…”. Tomorrow is not promised, and we only have so many years to sit beside this tree. To begin to see through the murk of the future, we must think about what matters most to us, remember our roots, and either be open to making compromise or try the best we can to make it happen.

So reach up and pick a fig; take a bite and savor the taste. There will be another season, and another chance to dream again.


Contact Vivian Lam at vivlam25 ‘at’

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