I think the most important thing I’ve learned in college so far is that academia doesn’t make me happy.
It’s not that I’m not happy about academia. I could not actually live if I weren’t happy about academia, because I have opted, entirely voluntarily, to do more academia in the space of time society allots for it than anyone who is entirely sane. Academia makes me feel accomplished; it opens doors into rooms I very much want to visit and blows me down roads I very much want to travel. It is my doorway to learning, and learning makes me very, very happy. But the papers and the books, for all I like them and care about them, are not the stick against which I need to be measuring my happiness.
It took me too long to come to understand this. Gifted and AP students, put your hands up and wave the banners of your tattered expectations in the wind: I think we are told from a very young age what is supposed to make us happy, and it is accomplishment of a very certain kind. I spent much of high school and the first year or two of college living in academia, and liking it quite a lot, and still having a lot of anxiety attacks about it. There was a period of my life when spending too much time with other humans in a given week made me legitimately panicky – not because I was suffering from social anxiety, or because crowds exhausted me, but because when I wasn’t studying, I felt guilty.
I don’t know exactly when this changed. Like with most changes, it was a slow thing– the subconscious, and then the conscious, realization that this was not how humans were supposed to live. That evenings spent pretending to be someone else in good company made the long days following them less tiring. That talking to someone about the Avengers for two hours sent me to bed more pleased than writing six pages about economic anthropology did– that flapping my hands at someone and shouting about German literature made me happy in a different way than flapping my hands at a piece of paper and typing enthusiastically about German literature did. Real humans are important! I realized at some point, and immediately felt stupid.
I imagine Germany had something to do with it, too– a year that I specifically decided not to make academia the most important thing in my life. Like taking a break from a long-term lover. I cheated on academia with European nightclubs, and I remember the drunk dance-off I had in Munich with a Finnish stranger far better than I remember the content of my class on Postcolonialism in Literature and Film. It is not to say that academia is not important, that shallower memories are necessarily better— but I learned that it is important for me, personally, to make many kinds of memories. Shallow is not bad. Sounding my barbaric YOLO from the roofs of buildings I was not actually supposed to be on top of made my life better, in some tiny, stupid way. By the end of my year abroad, I felt ready to have a long-term project again– to be beholden to someone else’s deadline– but forcing something else to be important to me for awhile was a good thing to do.
Sorry– this is a terribly obvious conclusion to draw, and maybe not worth the space I’m taking to write about it. But I look back and am startled by how long it took me to realize how much I needed to find something to measure my worth against that wasn’t Pages Read This Week. How many years I spent putting the reading and the papers in front of people, and how I used to sit in the driveway and stare dead-eyed out the windshield, trying to make myself leave the car, and thinking, This is not how people are supposed to live.
“Why do you work so much?” a friend asked me the other day, frowning. “I’m like a shark,” I told him– “If I stop swimming, I’ll die.” We laughed, and I stared at the ceiling thinking about this statement for very long minutes later that night. And then this weekend, I made myself stop swimming. I took a day off– I planned my birthday party, I bought myself something cute, I spent two evenings laughing entirely too loudly in the company of drunk people. It is silly beyond belief that doing these things still feels like a novelty to me much of the time, that there is still a part of me that thinks I am not the kind of person who should enjoy these things.
People are better than academia. Academia has brought many good things into my life, but it is people that make me happy. I am hoping to forget this less often as time goes on.
(Saturday: I had had a few beers, and this dude had had a bunch of vodka, and we ended up in a corner together, standing two feet apart and shouting over the music, flailing our hands at each other and bellowing in near-unison– “LIKE– LIKE, ECONOMICS IS FUCKING CRAZY????” “RIGHT!! RIGHT!!” “LIKE, IT’S NOT REAL!” “RIGHT? IT’S NOT FUCKIN’ REAL!!” “shit, man, I have this book on the debt crisis– I have to bring it by sometime–” “Oh, fuck yeah, I’ll drink less next time and we can talk about it–” “Can I get your number?” “Yes! Hang on, let me grab my phone, I don’t want– wanna trip over the, the thing….”)