I’ve been getting very intimately acquainted with my resume recently as I navigate the very particular hell that is applying and interviewing for internships. I’ve learned how to spin the things I’ve done into an overarching narrative and individually cultivated stories, as though a page of titles, operationalized descriptions, and dates is all it takes to make a life. From there, I can reveal an employable quality about myself by breaking down these experiences into discrete situations.
That’s just what we do; we live with ourselves every day, but to talk about what we’ve done in a way that holds meaning for other people, we have to quantify it and make it digestible. And a lot of the things we do are selected such that they can perfectly fit into the boxes we know we have to fill—for example, putting ourselves into scenarios where we’ll work with a team, hold a leadership position or have to handle conflicts—removing the nuances and feelings attached when they become just another talking point.
We commodify pre-professional experiences because we think of them as tangible, resume-able activities that you can pick and choose as easily as filling out a form or two. As such, there are incredibly structured processes for obtaining the “things'' that we are supposed to put on our resumes. Think Bass Connections, DukeEngage, Muser, JobX and Summer Experiences. We have countless programs that, under the guise of centralization and equitability, both promote and enable the idea that the way to have a meaningful and productive academic career is to do something recognizable and quantifiable.
The experiences under these umbrellas aren’t bad—indeed, you’d see a couple of them if you looked at my resume—but how we treat them is. The university has recognized the importance students place on gaining experiences that look good on a resume. As such, Duke has packaged these opportunities like the candy aisle of a store: individually wrapped and sold together by variety, promoted especially during the fall season before Halloween rolls around and always leaving you feeling a little unsatisfied because you can’t pick everything. So, rather than money, we pay in our time and energy.
I can tell you a compelling story about the experiences I have listed on my resume and walk you through how they brought me to where I am today. Still, I wonder how many of those things would be on there if I hadn’t felt the pressure to do them or if they didn’t appear so tempting in their later usefulness. I don’t regret doing any of these activities, per se, but that’s not to say they all felt entirely natural. I can display them like books on a shelf, as though they are a good I own, rather than a part of my subjective human experience.
That’s not to say that our experiential consumption isn’t rooted in the same family of impulses as material consumption is. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. described one of the characters in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five as such: “Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.” I don’t think racking up lines on a page is all that different.
I used to feel anxious whenever I would go somewhere with a gift shop, as though I had to prove I had visited that place—as if I didn’t make a material purchase, the memory of the place would disappear. Now, I feel like if I don’t do all the right things while I’m here, I’ll give off the appearance of having wasted my intellectual potential, as though I hadn’t gone here in the first place. Acquiring these impressive preprofessional experiences is the way to prove your success and show that you are making the most of your time in the gift shop that is the university. Of course, you can’t physically hold them, but you can talk about them and add them to your LinkedIn and resume.
Thinking about my relationship with the consumption of goods is making me realize that treating experiences in the same manner—acquiring for the sake of acquiring—isn’t going to make me happy, nor is quantity more important than quality. Doing things just to do them is silly. I’d rather buy things that will last, just as I’d like to seek out experiences out of genuine interest rather than through the fear of not doing enough.
To create a meaningful life, we can’t just have an excess of things or experiences. If the need to have for the sake of having supersedes the ability to enjoy anything, it’s almost better to not have anything at all. It’s necessary to do these things to be a functioning member of our society, but I wonder if it might be easier to find passion in the ways we spend our time by embracing the activities which don’t look quite as good on paper.
Heidi Smith is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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