This summer, I went to see a play called Straight White Men for a number of reasons: to watch Armie Hammer dance around on stage, to support the first Asian-American playwright on Broadway, and to spend 90 minutes making fun of the behaviors I witness on a daily basis as the lone girl in a suite full of guys.
The play centers on three brothers, Matt, Drew, and Jake, who have been raised to be conscious of and try to counteract their own privilege as—you guessed it—straight, white males. Tension arises when Matt, the family paradigm of the non-problematic masculine social justice warrior, moves home to take care of his aging father and begins a temp job where he does important, though not particularly glamorous, work. And his brothers are fundamentally incapable of understanding how Matt can actually be content in this situation.
At first, like Matt’s brothers, I also wondered why this man who had the whole world ahead of him, who was poised to change the world, was not doing just that. At the same time, while Jake and Drew’s reactions to Matt’s seeming mediocrity were entertaining, their confusion and borderline outrage were excessive to the point where I found myself silently begging them to just let their brother be—he was happy in the life that he had carved out for himself.
Near the beginning of each year, Columbia likes to tell its first-years and remind its upperclassmen that while we may have been the demigods of our various high schools, Columbia will knock us down a peg. We will be surrounded by people who are just as smart, just as athletic, just as social, just as driven, and just as successful as ourselves—if not more so. We are now the small fish in a much bigger pond.
The idea that all of us must achieve the pinnacle of success because of which school we attend is not only impossible but also incredibly dismissive of a vast range of career choices. There are 6,000 undergraduates in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science alone, not counting Barnard or the School of General Studies, meaning most of us will go on to do something, but there’s no conceivable way all of us will achieve eternal glory.
When I joined Spectator as a first-year, I had some reservations about being part of the Opinion section. I was “the English girl” in high school, having written a number of opinion articles for my school paper. As terrifying as it is to slap my name on an article and throw my opinions out into the world, it’s also exhilarating knowing that people will read my words and associate them with me.
At Spectator, though, much like at a professional newspaper, the Opinion staff does not write articles. Rather, they edit and recruit pieces written by non-staffers. When I found this out for the first time, a cringeworthy thought flashed through my mind: But if my name isn’t anywhere on this piece, how are people going to know that I edited it?
Whether we are trying to live up to the expectations of our parents and the boys back home with a deep, Homeric sense of entitlement to glory, or just really like the notion of having our names in lights, I think we are all attached to the idea that, since we made it this far, we are going to be Somebody-with-a-capital-S. After all, we go to an Ivy League school and live in a city where making it here means you can make it anywhere. We were encouraged from an early age to follow our passions, but somewhere along the line that became synonymous with unequivocal, publicly celebrated success.
Since leaving Opinion, I’ve been working toward a career in publishing that is largely behind the scenes but extremely rewarding. There is no better feeling, to me, than seeing an article or a book that I worked on make it big. I loved and still love talking to authors who are excited about the responses they receive about their articles. I love walking around campus and hearing people praise a piece that I helped work on. Sure, I’d love to see my name commended in The New York Times, and I’m still holding on to the idea of being on a bestseller list someday, but spending a large portion of my life helping other people achieve success doing what they love—well, that’s also something to brag about.
The analogy of being a small fish in a big pond is one that is not completely inclusive. It would be more apt to say that we are small fish operating in individual ponds that come together to form an ocean. You aren’t necessarily going to change the world, and even if you do, people aren’t necessarily going to know it was you. But isn’t that half the point? None of us will ever really know who goes down in history and who doesn’t, whose five minutes of fame will be five minutes and who will become the icons of our generation. And that’s not something we will ever truly have control over. But we do the things we do because we love them, and because we find value in the work we do with the time we spend doing it.
Sarah Fornshell is a senior at Columbia College majoring in English and theoretically minoring in history. She is slowly coming to terms with the idea that she may not spend the rest of her life with her name being revered by nerds across the nation. She is a member of Alpha Chi Omega sorority and a former deputy editorial page editor for columns. I Do Indeed Give A F*** About The Oxford Comma runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.