Against Ambition

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.