Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Solitude and Leadership, pt. 1

I'm writing this post on Saturday evening. I got back early in the afternoon from Caltech's Prefrosh Weekend, two days of panels and free food and crazy antics (crazier than one would expect from Caltech).

First thing I did once home and on wifi was check my email, naturally. What did I discover but a load of Lit homework I missed: read and take notes on an essay, then write a rhetorical precis identifying the author's main point.

I groaned. And then I clicked on the link to the essay and stopped groaning.

The essay: Solitude and Leadership, a lecture that William Deresiewicz delivered to West Point students. Please read it. This post will still be waiting for once you're done.


Deresiewicz's main points, as I identify them: conformity leads to stupidity and stagnation. Distraction leads the same way. You need to spend time alone, with thoughts or focused work, in order to discover who you are and what you stand for. And only with that self-knowledge can you trust yourself to do the right thing. And only if you choose the right path, even against criticism, can you be called a leader.


That essay hit me like a freight train. I actually did the homework because I wanted to think more about the ideas contained therein. Why?

As I keep on talking about, because it is the single largest thing that I must contend with right now, I am deciding between Caltech and Stanford. My parents really want me to go to Stanford, and I've gotten into arguments with them about it because what I need is to talk to someone who will help me evaluate objectively the pros and cons of each school, and my parents are unable to provide that because their bias toward Stanford is immense.

It is understandable: it's a great school and my dad had a wonderful experience there as a postdoc (for the record, I forgot to mention this at all in my application, so no, I'm not a legacy admit). Of course they have opinions and want to share them.

But, at the same time, I am 100% justified in wanting a fair, balanced sounding board for a decision that will shape the rest of my life.

Perhaps the above explains why Deresiewicz's essay hit me so hard. Other people's perspectives and information are certainly important. I don't have all the facts yet, and I need other people to help me collect them. But the opinions that others form based on those facts are useless. If I have the facts then I don't need the opinions.

Because this is my life. How I interpret the facts, how I weigh the pros and cons of each school, depends on what I want to get out of my education. This is a task too personal and too important for me to delegate to anyone, especially to people whose prior opinions will lead them to use a scale already weighted to one side.

As for me, I am still evenly split. After my visit, I really like Caltech, but I got no gut feeling that this is the place I belong. As a small school, Caltech presents distinct advantages and disadvantages. I can see myself going there and being successful and happy, but I can see myself being successful and happy at Stanford too. It all comes down to how things go at Admit Weekend, what new knowledge I gain about Stanford and its strengths and weaknesses.

When I say it all comes down to the data, I mean it. I don't want my parents' bias toward Stanford to influence me in either direction: rebellion is as reflexive and mindless as conformity. I just want to gather all the data I need, including the subjective data of my (and ONLY my) opinions of the schools, and then be alone to process it. And then decide, on my own, drawing my own conclusions based on what matters to me.

As Deresiewicz said,
The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.

My decision will mean nothing unless it is truly mine.


I am getting mildly sick of hearing myself talk about my decision, so on Friday we'll play a game. Next week I'll probably get more into the leadership aspects of Deresiewicz's lecture, because that's a rich discussion I've neglected here.


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