A little less than a week ago, I was in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria interviewing a filmmaker about his latest project. I had on my “take-me-seriously-I’m-a-real-reporter” blazer and was knocking out my questions.
He was telling me about the love story component of his film—that we all have that tortured poet/musician/actor/writer who we fall in love with in our youth which inevitably doesn’t work out.
I was nodding and “uh-huh”-ing like a good little journalist. Right as I was about to move to the next question, he asked rather bluntly, “You apparently have never had this relationship?”
I sputtered and laughed, joking that I’d been too busy studying to find a poet.
But here’s the thing: Of course I can describe that kind of relationship. Any eighth grader who’s reading “Romeo and Juliet” can. I understand the concept. But, as my mother might say, I’m too smart for that shit. In high school, I avoided those scenarios like the plague. I had my priorities straight: Get good grades, stay out of trouble, and get into the best college I could. In college, I more or less adopted a similar routine. I found a major I really love, work hard, and try to stay out of trouble. Was that the wrong thing to do?
A few days later, I found myself confronted with the same sort of scenario. Browsing HBO GO, I stumbled on the independent film gem “For a Good Time Call...” Near the beginning of the film, one of its protagonists, a straight-laced brunette named Lauren, is dumped by her boyfriend for being too “boring” and is subsequently fired from her “boring” job. A few scenes later, she has an interview lined up for her dream job, and what does the interviewer tell her? You’re qualified, your résumé is fantastic—but you haven’t DONE anything.
Everything we’ve all been told that is worthy of recognition—academic excellence, great recommendations, strong computer skills—aren’t a sign of distinction, but conformity. You might have guessed from the film title that this conundrum soon gets remedied. Lauren and her roommate start up a phone sex line, she gains confidence and bravado, and by the end, she gets her “IN YOUR FACE” moment in a leopard dress to that very same interviewer (spoiler alert: this time she gets the job).
But all of these situations present a frustrating paradox: that doing everything “right” makes us boring and average. We need some cataclysmic event—a dramatic love affair, a near-death experience, a vampy job—to rise above and become interesting, fulfilled people.
If you take the films and books literally, then we young adults are focusing on the wrong things. In a new study, University of Pennsylvania researchers studied the Facebook status updates of 75,000 volunteers. By analyzing the words used most frequently and prevalently, they were able to design computer modules that accurately predicted the age, gender, and personality of participants.
For my purposes, their project gives data to back an obvious conclusion: that I’m not alone in my goal-driven focus. The 13- to 18-year-old bracket shows high frequency and prevalence for words like “homework,” “school,” and “tomorrow.” In the 19-22 bracket, there are a lot more curse words and alcohol-related topics, but “semester,” “studying,” “classes,” and “papers” hold their own. For the 23-29, “at work” dominates all categories. Basically, the studious high schooler becomes the stressed-out college student, who then becomes the workaholic adult.
Though we read and watch these films, it seems that many of us don’t follow their example. But here’s what I’m wondering: Are we deceiving ourselves when we imagine that midterms, exams, and GPAs actually matter, or are the books and movies lying to us, with the promise of earth-shattering life and outlook change?
We all talk a good game about the many successful Columbia dropouts—Lou Gehrig, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, even Joseph Gordon-Levitt. They dropped out and went on to greater things. But in evaluating these figures, we historicize the circumstances, justifying the action by the outcome. The truth of the matter is that the script—high school, good college, job and/or graduate school—is a generally proven method. Statistically, you graduate college and your job prospects increase. The odds of being the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg? Significantly lower.
In the end, most of us wouldn’t be willing to take the risk. Even Lauren, liberated sexually by her phone line and willing to boast to her prospective employer about her new profession, is mortified when her parents discover it.
I’m not quite sure what I’m missing out on by not chasing after the poet/musician/actor/writer who doesn’t even like me. Like any good heroine, it may happen when I least expect it. But here’s what my rational, over-achieving demeanor disposes me to think: I don’t know that I’m willing to find out.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life's a Mitch runs alternate Tuesdays.
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