Some wise musician once told me that only mediocre players are picky about their musical instruments. If you are a bad player, then it doesn’t matter how good of an instrument you play on. The music will not sound good anyway. If you’re a good player, then it also doesn’t matter how bad of an instrument you play on, since you will figure out a way to make beautiful music with it anyway (like what Keith Jarrett did in Köln in 1975). However if you’re somewhere in the middle, you could fool yourself in thinking that you’re good by playing on a great instrument. It may occasionally produce decent music despite your lack of skills.
A little over a year ago, I came out of my sabbatical and started working with high school students at an independent school in Silicon Valley (yes I’m back on the west coast!). Getting to know more young people has been a really great transition for me and has given me a renewed sense of hope for the future.
I am concerned, however, at the general culture of the current times, and what some of these kids are told as “advice” by peers and adults who know no better. For example, there is a tremendous number of time-wasting tasks that they are forced to go through just to optimize the college admissions game. To spend so much time on this game is incredibly inefficient, since most undergraduate programs will teach very similar things anyway. The name of the college, it seems to me, are very similar in effect to musical instruments. If you remain bad at what you do, then nobody will want to hire you, so what college you attended won’t matter. On the other hand, if you dedicate enough time to become good at something, then your work will speak for itself and you’ll have plenty of opportunities as people realize the value you will bring, so the college you attended won’t matter either. So the signaling that comes from the name of the college on your resume, if it makes any difference at all, only matters if you’re mediocre. By telling kids to care about such pointless things as the name of the college they attend, we are basically telling them, “We have very low expectations of you that you won’t amount to much, so you will need to go to a famous school in order to make people believe that you’re better than you actually are.” What an uninspiring and stupid message that will for sure kill the intrinsic motivation these kids all have.
The tragedy in all this is that by focusing on this admissions game, we are intentionally choosing to stay mediocre. Or at least we are optimizing our life with the assumption that we will stay mediocre. I don’t necessarily think that is a bad choice if you’ve intentionally chosen it and are content with it, but a lot of people are funneled into this mediocrity mindset without realizing that there are other options. Developing yourself is a time-consuming process; you must choose to do it, and do it on a daily basis. Because time is finite, you will most likely have to give up some other things for this, but trust me, the tradeoff is well worth it.