Learning from ‘Linsanity’

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Maybe you wanted to be a firefighter, an astronaut or president of the United States. I doubt, however, that the answer was something like “investment banker” or “management consultant.” The wonderful thing about children is that they dream with reckless abandon before discovering the difficulties of real life.

But just how insurmountable are those difficulties? At the College, we are part of an incredibly fortunate group of young people; students at the College have access to incredible resources and opportunities. But despite all of these opportunities (or perhaps because of them), there is a persistent feeling that, for many students, life will lead them in very safe (and boring) directions – at least professionally. That being said, it’s perfectly fine to do well in a more conventional occupation. But sometimes I wonder if students pursue those careers out of genuine passion or out of fear of trying something less certain. Ezra Klein, a columnist for Bloomberg, recently wrote a fascinating article about the large number of talented students who go into finance. He essentially argues that the general nature of a liberal arts education makes students follow what they perceive as the safest course because they haven’t yet acquired real-world or technical skills. And there is some truth to that. But I hope that we don’t allow that fear of the unknown to cut off great possibilities in life.

“NBA player” is another one of those careers to which young children aspire, but the nature of professional sports is that they require early and complete dedication. However, we have a great example of someone who had a liberal arts experience yet also chased the big, seemingly impossible dream: the recent basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin. At first, I was surprised to learn that Lin went to Harvard: It is not exactly a basketball program known for producing NBA players. The only Harvard graduate to play in the NBA in over 50 years, Lin had no scholarship offers out of high school, and the only Div. I programs that would take him as a recruit were Ivies.  Even Harvard Coach Bill Holden once said that Lin should probably look at Div. III schools (who knows? In a different world, Lin might have played at Williams). So Lin went to college, continued to play basketball and graduated as an economics major. And for most people, that would have been the end of the story.

Many in the same situation would have decided to stop playing basketball after college. There are obviously many careers available to Harvard graduates outside of the NBA. But Lin didn’t give up on basketball, even after going undrafted. And things didn’t just magically fall into place immediately after he made the decision to continue. Of course, the fact that Lin is now doing extremely well with the Knicks justifies those earlier life decisions. But Lin would not have had the opportunity to live up to his potential if he had not been willing to follow his dreams in the first place.

I hope that students at the College will do the same as they explore all the opportunities open to them. A liberal arts education should be a time to try new things and take risks. But when I talk to students on campus, they seem as if they are being forced into conventional career paths. I think that the pressure to pursue the safest life course comes from a multitude of sources: nervous parents, a down economy and perhaps even the nature of elite education itself. And I think that this problem is magnified at the College because of our small size. But you only live once. And why would you waste the life you’ve been given doing anything other than what you love? Don’t be afraid, follow your passions with reckless abandon. If you really want to become an avant-garde poet, a music producer or a sustainable aquaculture entrepreneur, you should trust your instincts and go for it. If you are good at what you do, material success will eventually follow. You might not make it to the NBA, but you could still do something remarkable.

Spencer Flohr ’14 is from Chambersburg, Penn. He lives in Carter.

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