Columns, Commencement 2009

Will fortune favor the brave?

By
Senior Editor
Thursday, May 21, 2009

While I do not normally hobnob with famous journalists, last summer I had the special opportunity to meet Bob Herbert — the New York Times columnist — when I was an intern on the “Morning Joe” Show at MSNBC news.  After I discussed his commentary on the show that day, he amicably fished out the facts of my personal narrative and then asked me the “dreaded question.” “What do you want to do for a living?”  With no clear answer in mind, I smiled at him and said, “Well, I’d love to have your job one day.”

Now that I stand on the threshold of graduating from college, that conversation exercises a gravitational pull on my thoughts. Though I plan to attend graduate school in the fall, the question of what I ought to be doing with my life remains a pressing one.
I would like to answer that question with the kind of thought-provoking, inspiring and world-view challenging column that Bob Herbert would write. Instead, I can pose only topical questions, rather than propose timely answers, in my last column for The Herald.
Given our natural human predilection for certainty, I understand why we may have a bias in favor of answers over questions. Nevertheless, if we hope to get the right answer, we must first ask the correct question.

Take Gertrude Stein as an example. When she was on her deathbed, someone asked her, “What is the answer?” Instead of responding with sage advice, Stein reportedly uttered her last words by querying instead, “What is the question?” While this story may be apocryphal, it nonetheless has a telling message for us as graduating seniors. In a world where the traditional answers may no longer apply, what questions should we be asking as we stand at the threshold of leaving college life?

Where previous generations of Brown students might have looked to canonical texts for guidance, I have decided to turn to Hollywood instead. What I have in mind is director Greg Mottola’s recent comedy “Adventureland,” which asks a question that preoccupies many of us, namely, what does a non pre-professional college degree qualify us to do?
In the movie, the lead character, James, has just graduated from a prestigious liberal arts college with a degree in comparative literature and Renaissance studies. Because he wants to attend Journalism School at Columbia in the fall, he tries to land a summer job to finance his education. James discovers, however, that many of the skill sets that allowed him to succeed in college are irrelevant in the real world. His SAT scores do not impress the owner of a local pizza parlor. And when he fails to obtain one job after another, he exasperatedly tells his mother that he is apparently not qualified for even manual labor. When he does ultimately land a job running a carnival game at an amusement park, he finds another intellectual refugee there — a meek Russian literature major who reads Gogol and ironically quotes Virgil’s dictum that fortune favors the brave (“audentes fortuna iuvat”).

Like James, many of us experience angst about finding our own way in the world. We might have high SAT scores and even the ability to translate Virgil ourselves. While those academic skills immeasurably enrich our lives, they do not necessarily translate into meaningful jobs.  And so, we wonder who fortune can favor when post-modern life may be a carnival game where the rules are skewed against us. After all, we live in a post-Bush world where the rules changed even as we were playing the game. When we were first-year students, a degree from a top university was almost a surety of success for those willing to work hard. Then, Wall Street beckoned to some, and there were good jobs in a growing economy.

Now just three years later one domino after another has fallen or is unsteadily teetering. Wall Street is in shambles, many newspapers are on life support and the publishing industry is shrinking. Even academia is feeling the pinch, as graduate students are finding it increasingly difficult to get a teaching position at a university. As a result, the answers that formerly existed for graduating seniors at Brown no longer apply because we live in a time of diminished opportunity and heightened anxiety.

That is why Bob Herbert was correct: We do need to ask the transformative question of what we can do for a living. To be sure, each of us will answer this question in different ways. Some will work. Others will attend graduate school. And still others will continue their search for something meaningful to do. In doing so, each of us will enter our own ‘Adventureland,’ where we will have to survive in a brave new world before we can thrive outside the cocoon of our college years. 

The question now is whether Virgil was correct. Will fortune favor the brave among us?  While I do not know, I resolutely hope the answer will come in the fullness of time and in the fruition of our lives.

Lindsey Meyers ‘09 will measure her fortune in British pounds when she pursues graduate studies at Oxford University next year.