Why Colgate? Defining Success

And so it begins again. Another year of studying, meeting requirements, making connections and chasing success.

Having spent my entire adult life in competitive professional settings (I left a successful career of 12 years in the military and defense industry to attend Colgate), I hear a lot of talk about type A personalities and Alphas. Although people commonly conflate the two, they actually refer to very different concepts. The Type A and Type B Personality Theory is about risk factors for coronary disease while in ethology (a field of study within zoology that focuses on animal behavior), an alpha is the highest ranking animal in a social group. Many of us share a similar mental template for the type of person that is often labeled Type A or Alpha. Of all the characteristics conjured up by that labeling, perhaps the most common (and as applied to Colgate students, certainly the most relevant) is achievement.

 In the past year, I met other students from a wide range of backgrounds, and this year’s incoming cohort is Colgate’s most diverse to date. The majority of Colgaters that I have interacted with are interesting for their unique stories if nothing else, and usually for much more. Given this diversity, you might pause to consider what we share. Before any of us started our Colgate careers, we first had to be admitted to the university. This entailed high achievement levels in academic, extra-curricular, service and leadership arenas. If we have anything in common, it is an established record of achievement – commonly referred to as success.

Why study at Colgate University? Why Colgate? Why pursue a traditional post-secondary education at all? Try to distill your answer down to a one-sentence answer. Don’t describe the mechanics of your choice, such as the various criteria: most beautiful campus, strong liberal arts program, access to Colgate alumni, etc. Dig a layer down to the underlying why. An honest and common response might sound something like “To be successful.”

I was initially mystified to learn that amongst my classmates, finance is considered the sexy industry to enter after graduation. Not only that, but there seems to be little awareness that American society at large does not share this opinion. It wasn’t long before I began to discover classmates who were majoring in Economics (despite disliking the subject) so that they could have a career in finance (despite having neither interest in the industry, nor passion for the work). Why would someone spend four years studying something they aren’t interested in just so they can spend the rest of their lives doing work they don’t like?!

Lately, I’ve been reading a thought-provoking book that directly addresses what the author labels “elite college students.” Author and previously long-time professor at Yale University, William Deresiewicz, describes these students as products of an entire educational system feeding into the elite colleges and universities they attend. This system comprises primary and secondary schools and the college and test prep industries, as well as a range of assumptions, ideas and beliefs. The system can be seen as a never-ending succession of hurdles, goals and achievements. Each opportunity requires the previous one, and offers a chance at the next so that the whole hierarchy becomes an exercise in circular self-justification. We have been trained to always be chasing the next shiny, silver ball. Never mind if you enjoy the chasing, or even particularly like what you are chasing. The ultimate goal of this system, and of the entrenched privileged classes which it perpetuates, is success. We, the “elite college students,” have been programmed to attain success.

This past spring, I applied and was accepted to the Thought Into Action (TIA) Student Incubator. I had seen my classmates find their personal interests and passions pruned away for being impractical or irresponsible as they were drawn further down a track that supposedly led to success. There were various events and organizations on campus bucking the trend, but they lacked (and continue to lack) much of a following. Hoping to shift the culture on campus through embracing innovation, I launched the Disrupt! TIA student venture. 

Whether explicit or not, there is intense pressure from various sources pushing us into a very narrow range of professions. Deresiewicz mentions the big four ‘successful’ career tracks that “elite college students” pursue: medicine, law, finance and consulting. Of those, the latter two are by far the most sought-after. Anecdotal experience on campus suggests that Colgate follows the pattern. There are so very many different ways to make a lot of money (which seems to be the key attribute in the system’s conception of success). However, there are infinitely many more ways to be successful – using a different definition of success. If the merely materialistic version is abandoned, room is created for other measures: happiness, family, passion and so on.

At heart, it is a narrow and meager definition of success that drives the entire enterprise of elite education and employment. As evidenced by record numbers of depression amongst students, the path well-traveled amounts to a one-way ticket to a life of money over meaning and fame over family. Instead, take the human element into account and discard the mercenary pursuit of ever-greater wealth and prestige. Perhaps then we can jump the tracks and blaze a new trail. Breaking the mold is not easy; not only must you leave the comfort of familiarity, but others will try to stop you. As Deresiewicz writes, 

“People don’t mind being trapped, as long as no one else is free. But stage a break, and everybody else begins to panic.”

As we enter the new school year, I challenge the student body to reject the status quo definition of success. Find your own definition, and muster the moral courage needed to break ranks with the herd. Don’t become one of Deresiewicz’s titular “Excellent Sheep,” thoughtlessly striving to reach that next goal. Decide for yourself what the good life is and how to live it. To this day, Timothy Leary said it best, “Think for yourself, and question authority.”