About a year ago at this time I was going through a major soul searching process. Some might have even called it a sophomore mid-college crisis. At one point I actually sat down with my computer, opened a word document, and, among many other questions, attempted to answer: “What do I want out of life?” and “Why do I want those things?” and “What was I put on this earth to do?” I did this in the New York City apartment of my brother’s graduated college friends, in the midst of a pre-game they were throwing before a night in the city. I did not indulge in the drinking at the time, but talk about an odd moment to be moved to career and life introspection.
Many Duke students go through similar such soul-searching processes, maybe in other exotic locales. From my experience, sophomore year is the most common time period. You’ll soon be declaring your major or have already declared. Talk of career paths starts getting more focused and feels more important. As a freshman you can always console yourself that you’re just in your first year—no need to have things figured out yet at Duke or for your post-graduate future. Starting sophomore year though, for the first time, this consolation begins to recede. And for many it begins to feel as though they should have answers to all the questions already, or that at the very least their friends have more answers than they do. I’d venture to say this is not the case—no need to have all the answers yet, and almost no sophomore does. But all this nonetheless leads to soul searching.
Duke is full of students I like to call chasers. Chasers do exactly what their name implies—they chase things. Leadership positions on campus. Awards. Recognition. Many of them chase with a linear plan in mind: If I get X internship then that will land me Y job which will let me do Z thing in the future. The Duke chaser is sometimes stereotypically associated with the desire to attain wealth (think the stereotype of Duke investment-banking chasers). But that is not necessarily the case, though it certainly can be.
On the other hand, Duke also has plenty of anti-chasers. They decry credentialing and its influence on Duke students. They’d likely be against taking a major for the purpose of bolstering career prospects. They think students should be answering the heartstring sort of questions like, “What is it that I truly love doing?” They place a high value on having pure motivations—but oftentimes insist on applying their definition of pure to others motivations as opposed to just their own. They might normatively view a career as something that should be pursued for making the world a better place rather than money and prestige—and they often negatively ascribe such desire for money and prestige to Duke chasers.
In hindsight, what precipitated my sophomore soul searching was the fact that I was caught in the midst of these two extremes. This was the case externally—I was a member of communities at Duke filled with chasers and communities at Duke filled with anti-chasers. And it was also the case internally. Chasing by nature is analytical and ambitious, and I’d always considered myself to be both. Anti-chasing by nature is ethically normative, and I’d always strived to evaluate my life with regard to an ethical compass and higher purpose that would, God-willing, make the world a better place. Caught between these two extremes, I felt myself being tugged in both directions.
A year later, I don’t regret engaging in that New York City soul searching. Indeed, I think it was a healthy thing to do and I would encourage all sophomores to do it. But if I’ve concluded that soul-searching is healthy, I can certainly say a year later that both chasing and anti-chasing are perniciously unhealthy. I’d advocate running away from both. Chasing for chasing’s sake leads to a rat race; anti-chasing for anti-chasing’s sake leads to a self-righteous moral superiority complex.
So if there are any Duke sophomores out there reading this, gripped in existential angst, don’t feel the need to conform to one of the two, despite Duke culture maybe making you feel as though you have to pick a side. Duke students are intelligent and smart minded—we don’t have to fall victim to one of these camps. On this occasion (and probably some others), ignore campus culture, and combine the redeeming aspects: Chase something, but for your own anti-chasing reasons. What is needed is not chasing or anti-chasing, but rather purpose-driven ambition. First, find out what you want to do, as opposed to what others are doing. Decide why based on your own moral values, as opposed to someone else’s. Then go after it.
When it comes down to it, life is too short to chase for the sake of chasing or to apply someone else’s moral calculus to your own life’s course. Choose the third path and do neither. Take it from me, and save yourself (at least some) existential angst.
Daniel Strunk is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @danielfstrunk.