Columns

Malik ’18: What is possible?

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, September 21, 2015

I had such lofty plans for the summer. I was supposed to read 20 books and write several essays and short stories, but I only managed to read about seven books, and I wrote little. I returned to Brown feeling a bit disappointed and frustrated for not even coming close to the goals I had set for myself.

Soon after arriving, I was surfing websites related to Brown, looking up courses and researching events, and I noticed on the cover of the September/October 2015 issue of Brown Alumni Magazine the face of one of my heroes: Ayad Akhtar ’93. Akhtar is a Pakistani-American (like me) graduate of Brown (which I will hopefully be in a few years), who is a successful and brilliant writer (I also hope to become a writer some day) and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013 for his play “Disgraced” (a truly stunning work).

The magazine’s most recent piece on Akhtar, “A Dazzling Voice” by Lawrence Goodman, details Akhtar’s work habits in his 20s and 30s, a time during which he wrote for seven and a half hours each day. That is incredible. Eager to learn more, I searched and found an earlier piece from the magazine, “Writing from his Roots” by Elena Ferrarin ’96, published in the January/February 2012 issue. In that article, Akhtar explains, “Brown remains to this day the environment where I met more original, driven, creative people at higher density than any other place I have ever been,” and that being at Brown taught him to “remain open to the possibility that something can be, rather than be hedged in by the reality of what it is.” He said, “I have done that in boom times, and in sad times. I still have the sense that anything is possible. I still feel like that, more than ever.”

This openness is another way in which Akhtar and I are similar: While at Brown, we have both felt that anything is possible. I am sure many students here feel the same way. The people and features of this place — the brilliant and inspiring professors, the helpful advisors, the driven and passionate students, the libraries stuffed with great and important books, the absence of certain constraints of life at home — create an atmosphere of inspiration and limitlessness. Here, it can seem that, with hard work and determination, anything is possible.

Is it okay for students to feel this way? The idea that anything can be achieved is obviously naive. The social ills that fuel injustice and inequality, such as racism and sexism, do not magically disappear at the Van Wickle gates. These wrongs unfortunately affect the people studying here and will make it very difficult, maybe even practically impossible, for many students to do what they wish to. Also, people are often constrained by their socioeconomic backgrounds, which can limit their available opportunities, and some people may be less physically able do certain tasks than others.

But it is helpful, in many cases, to think and act as if anything can happen. This idea, when applied to life on campus, can allow students to take risks, to try classes and activities that they would not have otherwise attempted. Someone who thinks that she can excel in a completely new language course is able to take classes that lead to her becoming fluent. A student who is open to the possibility of making films can join Brown Motion Pictures and might discover a passion for directing. By not putting restrictions on what we can accomplish, we open doors to great new discoveries.

Psychological research supports the idea that being hopeful can lead to positive results. According to an article published by the American Psychological Association, one recent study found that college students who were hopeful were more successful in their academic pursuits than students who were less hopeful, while another study of law students in their first years showed that hope could help predict their academic performance. In the article, Kevin Rand, an author of the second study and associate professor of psychology at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, wrote, “Hope may be most beneficial in situations where a person actually has some control over the outcome, such as academic performance in law school.”

But with this boundless mentality, we can set ourselves up for disappointment when we make goals for ourselves that we fail to reach. After all, this is what I did during the summer. I carried the sense that I can do anything with me from Brown’s campus to my home, made an ambitious plan for my time off and failed to fulfill the plan. This is not an issue, though. If we fall short, we can use that as an opportunity to reflect on why. We can think about what happened and figure out what we could have done differently. We might decide that we should have set lower expectations before aiming for greater goals, or that we should have managed our time better. These reflections will help us do better the next time we set benchmarks.

Also, even if we do not reach our high expectations, we can still achieve more than we ever would have if we had placed unnecessary bounds on ourselves. I read seven books that were not required for any classes in less than four months; that is four to five more books than I would have read in a typical year before I came to Brown. And that mindset can help others, too. Consider a student who aspires to obtain a PhD in economics and become a tenured professor at a university. Her chances are unfortunately slim, as the competition for tenured positions is fierce, and she may face unfair treatment due to the social ills mentioned earlier. But if she closes herself to the possibility that she can become a tenured professor, her chances diminish to zero. The world already puts unfair restrictions on us, so we have no reason to put unwelcome limits on ourselves.

I believe that sensible thinking and practicality are useful and important, but I also think there are times for idealism. One such time is now. Brown is not perfect, but it is still a great place, packed with inspiring people and helpful resources. We should make the most of our time here. There is no reason to unnecessarily stop ourselves from trying new experiences and setting high goals. We should dare to act as if anything is possible.

Ameer Malik ’18 can be reached at ameer_malik@brown.edu.