By Grace Carroll

I remember feeling like someone was lifting something very heavy off of me, 

a weight I hadn’t realized I was carrying until it was gone.

It was a hot September day in 2019 and Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, was walking through White Plaza, running late to his frosh introsem.

What Wineburg hadn’t accounted for that Wednesday was the White Plaza career fair. His usual route was blocked by a swarm of teenagers in cheap blazers, looking sweaty. The blazers hovered particularly around one booth; an L.E.D. sign perched atop it, flashing the quant firm’s six-figure starting analyst salary.

Wineburg walked into his classroom intending to make a brief opening comment about the scene outside. What followed — a tirade against a culture of careerism so blatantly profit-motivated that students were being lured, literally, to flashing salaries like moths to flame — “sort of took on a life of its own,” he recalled recently. It’s known colloquially among some students as “the rant.”

I was one of the frosh sitting in Wineburg’s class that fall. I remember the rant. I remember his voice gathering momentum, the righteous flood of it spilling out the second floor window and pouring down onto the plaza below. I remember feeling slightly astounded, and a little disappointed in myself. But mostly I remember feeling like someone was lifting something very heavy off of me, a weight I hadn’t realized I was carrying until it was gone.

I asked one of my friends from that class, now a graduate student, if he remembers the rant as well as I do. “duhhhh,” he texted back. “that speech basically shaped my life at Stanford.”

Wineburg recently told me that, in the course of the past decade, he’d noticed an unsettling phenomenon among his students: the proliferation of the five-year-plan. “People came in with crib sheets that basically said, ‘I’m on a trajectory that I plotted out when I was 17 and a half years old,” he said. He shook his head. “I thought, how pathetic and how tragic that a group of incredibly talented young people would come in with the blinders you put on a donkey in order to prevent that donkey from going off a path.” I asked Wineburg what he thought was at risk, when you decide who you’re going to be at the age of 17. He didn’t mince words. “What’s at risk is one’s soul.”

Career fairs are a tricky kind of theater: they force us to externalize our ambition, perform it shoulder-to-shoulder with our peers. It’s an incredibly self-conscious endeavor. I walked through the same White Plaza one this fall, in my fifth and final year at Stanford, and I got where Wineburg was coming from. The line at the J.P. Morgan booth was twenty-some frosh strong; the entire education section was empty.

I don’t mean to judge — I remember what it felt like to be a frosh at Stanford, and to wake up everyday and learn a fun new way in which you are inadequate. Self-worth gets slippery fast, and a six-figure salary offers a clear and extrinsic metric for your own value. Your twenties are fluid, volatile and terrifying. Anything that promises to inoculate you against that uncertainty has an inevitable allure. 

It helps nothing that this crisis of identity plays out against the backdrop of Silicon Valley. Stanford, as Wineburg puts it, is “tied with an umbilical cord” to the tech industry. We’ve absorbed not only its capital but also its ethics, values and dreams. 

It wasn’t always this way. When Wineburg was a doctoral candidate at Stanford in the eighties, tech was a presence, “but it wasn’t the amounts of money, it wasn’t the Sandhill Road VCs, it wasn’t going to Coupa and listening to 19-year-olds talk about the app that they’re going to pitch,” he said. “And you’re just thinking, Oh, my God, where am I?”

When I was a frosh I had drive, I had prospects, I had start-up ideas. Strangers raised their eyebrows and murmured wow when I told them where I was going to college. I was going to study politics, or maybe economics, or — fuck it! — computer science. It was February of 2020. And then it was March. You know the rest of the story, from here. 

I left Stanford for the Zoom year and had a strange time. I hiked a lot. I moved to an island. I taught snorkeling lessons. I worked on a booze cruise. I came back to school a year later and found my sense of ambition has been smelted down and entirely recast. Before I’d left Stanford I’d decided on a Symbolic Systems major, which now seemed too abstract and not nearly as useful as driving an anchor into the sea floor. The only thing that still felt worthwhile was writing. I switched to English. 

I’d decided on a Symbolic Systems major, which now seemed too abstract 

and not nearly as useful as driving an anchor into the sea floor.

(I need to pause here and note the layers of privilege implicit in that last paragraph — my ability to do these things depended not only on financial status but on physical health, ability and access. I don’t think we’ve even begun to untangle the chasmic differences in our respective pandemic experiences, and how they may still be subtly shaping our community.)

Any Stanford humanities major can tell you that the average response to your academic trajectory is usually some mix of surprise and condescension.  Poetry, art, music — on first glance, these pursuits violate every Silicon Valley maxim: they move slowly, break nothing, disrupt nothing, pay nothing. They represent the opposite of ambition, at least in the strikingly narrow terms with which we’ve come to define that word. 

Alexander Nemerov, professor of art history, has taught me as much. He described the typical Stanfordian conception of the arts as a “playground” devoid of rigor or severity — good enough for a hobby, but certainly not meant to qualify as your life’s purpose. 

Nemerov teaches a survey class each fall, “Art History 1B.” Lectures often veer from the Impressionist movement to Heidigger and Sarte to the fundamental point of getting out of bed everyday. He understands that many students in his lectures are there to fulfill a requirement and might never take another art history course again. He therefore sees the opportunity to create a space in his classroom where, for once, “we’re not asked to plot our development and our potential and our overall transactability on a graph of economic and social coordinates.” 

I’m drawn to Nemerov’s pedagogy because that is precisely how I feel in front of a canvas: a sense of having stepped, however briefly, beyond the limits of my regular life. And clearly I’m not the only one who feels this way. Course enrollment in 1B is in the hundreds. It’s also a wildly popular class among Distinguished Career Institute (DCI) fellows, a program that brings successful professionals (“successful” almost always implying “high earning”) back to college.

I asked Nemerov why he thinks his classes are so popular among this specific cohort. “As you get older and your time becomes more reduced on earth, you have to think about some things that are important,” he leaned back in his chair and considered this. “I think the logical question that always comes up for me is, why not when one is young?”

“I think the logical question that always comes up for me is,

why not when one is young?”​

Sometimes a piece of writing is so perfect I think we ought to just call it and abandon the genre altogether, the way they retire the jersey numbers of certain athletes. For instance there should be no more “senior reflections” because the best one has already been done by Marina Keegan, who graduated from Yale in 2012. 

At its best, Keegan writes, college feels like “the opposite of loneliness,” a sensation that we don’t have a word for in the English language. At its best, the intensity of our energy and our potential makes college feel like a small universe unto itself, vital and real and all-encompassing. 

I love this essay in part because Keegan vehemently rejects the idea that anyone’s identity or future is truly fixed at college graduation. “We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old,” she wrote. “We have so much time.” What makes her rhetorically untouchable is that she is at once right and unfathomably wrong: Two days after she graduated, she was killed in a car crash. 

The summer I turned twenty-two I was living in upstate New York, in a big house in the woods with three friends and approximately 60 bats. I did not get any of the internships I’d applied for that summer, not the one at the Post or the one at the Journal or the one at the Chronicle or that very well-regarded fellowship. Instead I got an operations job at the Northeast branch of a big wilderness school, which mostly entailed driving 15-passenger vans around the backwoods of Vermont for minimum wage. 

On my birthday, in August, our branch director called an emergency staff meeting. A student on a backpacking course in Wyoming had been struck by lightning. The instructors tried their best to save his life. He was twenty-two. 

Izzy and Roísín went back to the staff house early to bake me a birthday cake. After dinner we drank whiskey and walked to the river. There’s a spot across Keese Mill Road where the St. Regis bends to the left, and an old rope swing hangs from a high embankment. It was past dark; the pines cut black silhouettes into the indigo night. Under the cover of the star-freckled sky the water was the color of dark wine. I swung out, out, out over its surface and let myself fall. 

So certainty is impossible, in the end. It turns out we don’t get to know when the car will crash or the lightning will strike. This is an unpleasant truth to consider for too long; the only decent language for it is poetry. Mary Oliver calls it “your wild and precious life.” Annie Dillard calls it “our few live seasons.” But, as W.H. Auden put it, poetry makes nothing happen — unlike consulting firms, which do something unfathomably important, which no one really seems able to explain to me. Why not when one is young? 

Nemerov once told me that a Van Gogh painting, with its flurries and eddies of color, is not quite happy; he contends that the feeling you see reverberating through a wheatfield or swirling in the cosmos is joy. And joy, he clarified, “is something that enfolds darkness, and is experienced in spite of that darkness, and is a pleasure that is not naive.” 

In the last five years I’ve developed something of a pathological attachment to the Dish. Running the loop in moments of stress or crisis became a habit after a calamitous Econ midterm frosh year, a habit which persists to this day. 

There’s a point on the trail’s easternmost ridge where, just as you begin to descend through the dry golden brush and into the twisting oaks, Stanford’s entire campus sprawls out below you like a lego miniature. Whenever I reach this vantage now I think about something Christian Gonzalez-Ho — a Ph.D. candidate in art history, who also happens to be an architect, and my former 1B teaching assistant — told me recently: Stanford is built like a motherboard. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Stanford from above. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Most of the East Coast schools have this Jewel-Box architecture,” Gonzalez-Ho explained, pointing to buildings like Yale’s Beinecke library — structures which impose and impress, shaping the rest of the campus around their singularity. “At Stanford, it’s so contiguous, as to be a very well fit machine in which all the things are running like cogs.” 

That machine includes us, biking about our days, ants among the cogs. When Gonzalez-Ho told me this I felt at once enlightened and a little sad. That pervasive, unceasing sense of motion? That relentless urge towards doing, earning, founding, achieving? I’m not imagining it. It is the very current of this campus, baked into the sandstone. It’s inevitable, inescapable. Every errant sunbeam argues towards it.

I hope this metaphor doesn’t reveal how little I know about motherboards. All I’m trying to say, to the frosh in line at the J.P. Morgan booth, is pay attention to the arguments in the architecture. There are entire markets and industries and powerful people interested in making you mistake your self-worth for your earning potential; notice their propaganda, whether it’s as obvious as a flashing salary or as subliminal as that weird pressure on your shoulders that never seems to go away. Why not when one is young?

All I’m trying to say, to the frosh in line at the J.P. Morgan booth,

is pay attention to the arguments in the architecture.

Nemerov told me students often come to him crying, embarrassed by their perceived lack of professional success. He described what he called an “embargo on happiness” at work within Stanford’s culture: a tacit understanding that the needs of the world and the imperatives to succeed are too urgent for something as frivolous and cheap as joy. 

I asked Nemerov if he had a sense of how we got here. “I think it’s the ideological and technocratic capturing of our very hearts, so that we can be engineered into ever more productive and profitable vehicles for wealth, and — of course, always — the betterment of the world,” he said. I pointed out how strange it was that the betterment of the world had become implicitly conflated with the consolidation of personal capital. “Well, of course,” he replied. “If you strip that moral basis from it, it’s just greed.” 

When I arrived at college, I arrived with a very sure story about the world and how I fit into it. I’m beginning to think that the real value of a college education is the slow undoing of your most firmly-held truths. I am not old. But I am not quite as young anymore. And one of the greatest lessons Stanford has taught me is how bad most people are at knowing what makes them happy. The dissonance between what we want and what we think we want is astounding, and too often I see my friends make choices out of fear but call it ambition. We are so young. We are so hungry. The impossible question is, for what? 

When I was eighteen I knew what I wanted. I knew I would become the editor of The Daily. I knew I would graduate in four years and get the fellowship at the Times. Maybe I’d have a book deal by now, or my own media start-up, or my first Pulitzer nomination. I’d have a robust LinkedIn presence and people would continue to raise their eyebrows and murmur wow when I talked about myself at dinner parties and then I would be happy. 

I have absolutely none of that. It’s possible frosh-year-me would be horrified by this outcome. What I would like to tell her — and what I will tell you instead — is that you have the rest of your life to win prizes. They lead you towards loneliness, not away from it. But you have one specific chance to be nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. 

I’d have a robust LinkedIn presence

and people would continue to raise their eyebrows

and murmur wow when I talked about myself at dinner parties 

and then I would be happy.

Stanford has been a gift and a privilege, one that I certainly don’t deserve, and my gratitude for this place is very real. But when I consider the last five years of my life, it looks nothing like a good resume. It looks like that night Izzy and I drove to Montreal and talked our way into a sold-out concert. It looks like the day Anna and I moved into our island apartment, where you could see the ocean from the porch; that first sunset, a symphony of orange so loud I could almost hear it. It looks like a rainy Sunday in Manhattan, that one Klimt painting in the Neue Gallery. It looks like that night at Walter’s bar; that afternoon at Cane Bay; the day Will proposed to Eloise; the day Dan proposed to Ally; that night in the canyon; pre-dawn in Utah; the sunrise from the summit of Halls; that ocean rainstorm while we were spearfishing; the dive off the wall, where the seafloor gives out, and it’s blue all the way down. 

This is all I have to offer. Not medals but handfuls of glittering junk. Scraps of color and texture, worth nothing, still priceless. 

Against Ambition