Not All Who Wander Are Lost

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It is easy to feel unaccomplished here. There’s always someone more accomplished at Harvard—someone with better LSAT scores, someone with a higher thesis grade, someone with a better reference to Kant in Justice section. But, more importantly, it can be difficult to figure out just what accomplishment really is. We knew we’d achieved something when we got in here. Today, as we leave, it’s a little more difficult to know what it is we’re supposed to be doing.

For past generations coming of age, the large questions and challenges were more obvious. For our grandparents’ generation, World War II provided an existential struggle to which each man and woman could find a way to contribute. In the post-War era, the tendency to break down the world into simple dichotomies—free vs. communist, high-brow vs. low-brow—made defining one’s path easy. For our parents’ generation, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement similarly served to divide and define—you were for Civil Rights and against the war, or you weren’t, but either way you knew where you stood. The clothes they wore, the drugs they used or refused, the colors of their friends’ faces, and the music they listened to all gave our parents’ lives definition. You were either hip or you weren’t.

Today, we have few of these obvious signposts to guide us. What we are supposed to do is not obvious, and often is not even remotely apparent.

But there is something unique and exciting about the time in which we’ve grown up. The ’90s were the single greatest era of peace, stability, and prosperity in American history. We had no major struggles, no rivals, no crises, no questions. Sure, our Tamagachis died on us, our Pogs collections failed to impress on the playground, and our responsibly homemade lunches never did quite compare to the cool kids with the Dunkaroos and Lunchables. But the decade presented no problems that seemed unsolvable. Then came the aughts, in which the stability, safety, and simplicity of the ’90s was flipped on its head. The facades of our failed institutions were torn down, revealing one sham after another—the dotcom crash, the housing crisis, Enron, Katrina.

This combination of decades has left us disillusioned and scared. We’ve been shown that safety and stability are fleeting—a reasonable reaction to the time that has shaped us. And given this attitude, it seems natural that we should flock to institutions of stability. Career tracks like banking, medicine, consulting, or even Teach for America, which offer clear hierarchies, defined processes for application and advancement, and steady pay, appeal to our generation to a degree never before seen.

There’s nothing wrong with our best and brightest minds applying themselves to the complex problems of finance and business, to life-saving tasks of medicine, or to the lives-changing job of teaching. But there are fewer of these jobs available today. Many of us who once would have gone into these areas are now faced with the uncomfortable reality of graduating into a recession. The sources of comfort, stability, and safety that so many of us have sought out have become more inaccessible.

But this apparent lack of opportunity is, in fact, an opportunity in itself. For those of us lucky enough not to see a certain tomorrow, we face an incredible opportunity: For the first time in our lives, the future is not laid out for us in applications and course catalogues.

As Harvard students, we are in a unique position—we cannot really fail. Of course, we will all fail at some point; we’ll fail to win a girl’s love, to earn a promotion, to gain access to the right law school, just as we failed to maintain membership in all 25 of our extracurricular activities from the freshman activities fair, or as we failed by getting that B-minus once.  But these are not real failures. These are hiccups. We’ve been blessed with enough talent and luck to gain the advantage of a Harvard degree, which, going forward, will allow us to try, fail, and get back up. Of course, we can fail at any one endeavor. But we’ll always be able to get back up. This is the great blessing of a Harvard education.

This is also the great American blessing. The United States has always been a country that welcomes in and rewards those who try, who venture down untraveled paths, who wander, who fail. That our generation today doesn’t seem to have a well-defined purpose means that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to seek out new questions and challenges. Our generation will find greatness not because of people performing well in the jobs that already exist but because of people exploring new paths that have never been tried before. Our dual blessings—to be in America at this moment and to be Harvard graduates at this moment—give us the chance to embrace this instability.

What I ask is that we keep our eyes open. As a generation we don’t have a good sense of where we’re going or what we are supposed to be doing. That’s all right, for now. But the way forward will not always be obvious, certainly not as obvious as it was when we opened acceptance letters four years ago or when we were offered a job four months ago. Our successes have conditioned us to not seek out opportunities. And this has left us afraid to seek out our purposes, as individuals and as a generation. But there’s no grading rubric for life, no automatic B-plus for just showing up.

Naming generations is a tricky project. Jack Kerouac was successful in naming his Beat Generation, but few others have been able to give their own generation a lasting moniker. The Baby Boomers—our parents—were given their name before they had done much more than arrive. The Greatest Generation—our grandparents—only got that label decades after they had earned it. Some have tried to call our generation a “Lost Generation,” echoing Gertrude Stein, who coined the term in reference to the original Lost Generation of the 1920s.

A fear of becoming a “Lost Generation” may not be unreasonable.  But we are not lost, not exactly. We simply don’t know where we’re going yet. And that’s just fine. We’d do well to remember that not all those who wander are lost.

Gabriel J Daly ’10, an inactive Crimson news writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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