I am privileged to have made many mistakes, endured a lot of failure and encountered much disappointment in my nearly four years at Duke University. I like to think these blunders have taught me much about life and my place in it. I glance at the past often and wish away my decisions, but also recognize that the wishing itself prepares me for a better future. As a columnist who has written frequently about failure, however, I often step back and also wonder if my unabashed optimism and regular recasts of the past have misled my own trajectory. Perhaps I am just as millennial as all the baby boomers say, self-assured that any failure is just a roadblock to inexorable impact and success. Maybe I yearn for meaning from my failures far too much.
I decided recently not to write an opinion column next semester so that I can devote more time to other projects. I now feel the need to say that the persistent theme of failure in my writing was never intended. I originally set off with the tagline, “realpolitik with Patrick”, hoping to umbrella what I thought would be columns that would cover campus, domestic and international political issues. But the political prescriptions often morphed into ruminations. My columns are filled with introspection spiked with now-humorous amounts of self-doubt. I think a better tagline would have been, “therapy sessions with Patrick.”
I am unsurprised by this theme when I consider my personality and method of writing a column. In personality, I tend to be a very open book and am forward about my emotions, aspirations and frustrations. For method, I generally write at the last minute, often inspired by a sudden spark of an idea. Some weeks I have been very purposeful about my writing, as in discussing the Duke Forward Campaign or the Duke Student Government Bill of Rights. But most weeks the idea came suddenly, forced onto the page more by the deadline than by some long-term strategy. For me, the more personal writing came when the writing was very rushed. It is a clarification I want to make after hearing spurious accusations that my columns are primarily self-promotional.
But that is what most Chronicle columns are nowadays, right? Public self-justifications for our opinions, decisions, thoughts and motivations. On the opinion pages of The Chronicle, I now see broad generalizations of campus issues, haphazard attempts at explaining human behavior, random justifications for decisions made and gratuitous comments on international controversy. I am unsure if the opinion pages have always been this way, or if this is just a recent trend. I have certainly contributed. Maybe Duke is drawing more students who are self-aware, or maybe there has been a generational shift in perspective. In the past few years I have certainly noticed increased national self-awareness dialogue around race, gender, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. Maybe Duke is emulating that movement. But it does not strike me as journalism.
I look back on my columns and see too much about myself. I never meant to be self-promotional; rather, I just turned too often to stories from my past, as if I entered column writing with the assumption that I was the story that needed reporting. It came from the thought that I only had the legitimacy to write about myself; I wanted to write about what I know, not what I thought to be true. Even though many people have enjoyed my columns, I now see pieces that do not belong in a newspaper, but on a blog, Twitter or maybe they should have been recited in a self-confessional YouTube video. And I think I only just noticed this trend in myself because so many other Duke columnists do it too. I have been gagging at the amount of self-help, unsolicited advice, off the cuff opinions and self-confessional pieces I have read, until I realized I was doing the very same thing.
The irony of using a self-confessional piece to lambast that very style is not lost on me. And I do believe it takes an enormous amount of courage to be totally open and honest with the public, to share private stories and to be open to criticism. It is even more courageous to continue doing it when you realize your writing only stokes the caustic comments from your critics. But when I see columnists complaining about the criticism they receive for their writing, knowing I complain too, I cannot help but think that we are asking for it. A culture that revels in self-confessionals is maybe also a culture that is asking for feedback of any kind. It is a culture that transcends the pages of The Chronicle—it is a habit that permeates my Facebook newsfeeds, TED talks and the “how I got here” stories shared by all types of professionals. Perhaps it is one of the defining characteristics of our generation, but I still worry that, in attempts to be deliberately and publicly honest, we are actually lying to ourselves.
More often than not, I wrote about myself instead of writing a piece of journalism, and I consider that a failure. It is not a positive note on which to end my time on these pages, but unsurprisingly, I have learned from failure once again.
Patrick Oathout is a Trinity senior. This is his final column of the semester. Send Patrick a message on Twitter @PatrickOathout.