Days are getting shorter. Leaves on the trees are beginning to shrivel. My inbox is pummeled with another onslaught of emails every day. Summer is crawling to its end, in other words, and I could not be more glad. It seems like an abnormal sentiment, and perhaps it is, but after the coronavirus started a pandemic and so rudely rewrote the story of my coming of age, “normal” is a haunting word with an ambiguous significance, if any at all.
Summer in any year certainly has its downsides. Still, historically it has served as a nice intermission between school years or an opportunity to dip my toes in the workforce by interning at a company. If I was lucky, I even got to spend some time in nature or hang out with my friends. One way to describe this past quarter is spacey. I have been disoriented and detached at times, yet I have continued to fulfill my responsibilities to the best of my ability. It’s sort of a punch-drunk feeling, but then again, it is also a feeling of unforgiving sobriety. I suppose that throughout this pandemic especially, I have sustained myself with daydreams of better days: personal autonomy, meaningful relationships, professional success. However, I get the sense that the events of my life are orchestrated by some puppeteer who wants to mock me for thinking that way.
In my reflection on my engineering fellowship this year at The Texas Tribune, I compared the beginning of my tenure to a wind tunnel. Why? For one, orientation took place on the Monday three days after the last exam of my first year of college. The turnaround was brutal, but I tried to remind myself of all the positive opportunities that come with working at such an organization. Of course, by now, June 7 is far enough in the past for me not to remember what I thought during orientation—only what I felt. The day had grueling moments, but what can you do about that in Zoom world? Overall, I think the managers of the fellowship program provided a solid introduction to the organization and in an expedient manner.
As sardonic as it sounds, the consistent hospitality of the staff for my time at The Texas Tribune came as a pleasant surprise. It’s a place where people are truly driven by the mission. In July, my manager reached out to me on Slack and said, “I hope you’re doing well today.” Immediately, I thought that I had messed something up, but then he brought up some form responses I had left on their fellowship survey from a couple of weeks prior. Since I had probably said something snarky about the impracticality of truly finding work-life balance in the 21st century, he was asking me about that and said that he’d be willing to have a call with me about it next week to chat and figure a few things out and help me succeed all around. I suppose I’ve come to expect people in the corporate world to be solely the deliverers of wrath and bad news. After all, we’re taught to work well—not to live well (never mind that Aristotle said that to live well is the meaning of life). But at least it’s heartening to see that there is still some humanity out there.
In this country, I’ve gotten the impression that it’s commendable to be self-reliant and self-interested, to be relentless and seek out what you want, even at the cost of others. Then it also seems that you can be criticized for self-compassion, as many in my experience see it as another word for “selfishness.” So in some situations, I feel that I’m supposed to be putting in work for my own sake and personal gain, and then at other times, I get the sense that it’s despicable to put one’s needs before those of others. Not sure what to believe. I almost get the idea that I must aim to be important enough in this world that I have to run over people to get where I need to go, but realistically no one should be above respecting others and acting in a responsible way. A hard worker cannot lose sight of that.
Working hard is a virtue, but the constant pursuit of efficiency—go, go, go!—is more of a frenetic, self-destructive obsession than a cardinal feature of human spirit and innovation. Why? See, in economic theory, efficiency is categorized as a problem that arises in a stagnating economy—not a solution. However, most people, I assume, are unaware of that because collectively we’ve become masters of efficiency. To utilize resources at the lowest cost, history has seen employees, managers, departments, organizations, industries, and whole sectors worked to the bone, in many creative ways, to a point where economic growth is measured by the tiniest marginal gains in efficiency. By itself, efficiency is not what an advanced economy ought to be concerned with. Productivity is what an advanced economy ought to be concerned with. Far different from merely making things cheaper, productivity is about making things better. The printing press, the incandescent light bulb, the automobile, the Internet—these aren’t only conveniences. They are earth-shattering moments in history that truly and dramatically change people’s lives. Productivity, as opposed to efficiency, creates whole new markets, ideas, and cultures. It enables the Everyman to do more, not just do something faster or through a proxy.
The flip side, naturally, is that efficiency offers continuously improving convenience. Nowadays, you can pay someone else to walk the dog or go grocery shopping. There’s no need to remember to buy a new tube of toothpaste if you automate it with an Amazon Prime subscription. Even the process of finding a date has been streamlined. Gone are the days of venturing to the bar and trying one’s luck. Now your soul mate is supposedly a swipe away. It wouldn’t be baseless to claim that the first fifth of the 21st century has accelerated humanity’s innovative sprint toward posthumanism. In fact, we may one day look back at the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an inflection point. As most of us were forced to assume a virtual life, what is accepted as someone’s identity became distinct from the body or a particular location. We more or less still socialize and function as before, sure, but the constraints that these makeshift digital solutions come with have given rise to new expressions of selfhood. A virtual background goes in place of a bracelet or ring. Animal Crossing goes in place for heirlooms, weddings, and conferences all at once. Travis Scott’s outrageously popular Fornite live stream goes in place of a traditional concert. But don’t get too comfy on your couch. These luxuries should not serve as a means to drown out the stark reality of masked, physically distanced interactions we face in the real world.
These behaviors seem a bit odd, but we’ve seen them before. At its heart, any catastrophe necessitates and provides an opportunity to reassess inefficiencies. Between the darkest hour of the 2008 financial recession and the end of 2019, for example, American publications jettisoned roughly half of their newsroom jobs. Google, Facebook, and other Internet titans forced into obsolescence the average newspaper’s primary source of revenue: print advertising. Unsurprisingly, as technology has only improved in its ease of use and the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the planet, more and more publications are turning into casualties—especially the local ones. About a decade ago, undergraduate enrollment dropped for the first time since the Civil War. Now, thousands of institutions in higher education are faced with a new enclave of setbacks, from which many will not recover. And though shopping habits were already changing, it seems that the past year has put the final nail in the coffin for malls and other retail locations.
A society that prioritizes efficiency will get faster and stronger—but not better.
That is what capitalism is supposed to do, I suppose. The system is at its best when it allocates economic resources to where they will be used most efficiently. Customers move from Blockbuster to Netflix. Shareholders in Payless ShoeSource choose to invest in Zappos instead. But is efficiency the be-all and end-all? This particular shift that we are observing now could be chalked up as “creative destruction”—essentially the deliberate disruption of current industry in favor of something more sophisticated—but I’m not sure that Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of economic “growing pains” is of solace to most. Indeed, he considered it “the essential fact about capitalism,” but Schumpeter also described it as “incessant.” If colleges have budget cuts, fewer students will be able to afford an education, and with the vanishing of local news outlets, political polarization will likely rise. These outcomes would undo a lot of social progress that has come from the past decades, but I don’t think there’s an easy solution either. It’s going to take a lot.
Welcome to New Haven
This August, I most assuredly got the move-in experience. The only catch is that it was not I who was studying in this town in Connecticut, but my sister. She is now beginning to pursue a PhD in biomedical engineering. It’s difficult not to feel some pride or even sympathetic joy at the sight of this, but I get plagued with envy and frustration all the same. All too familiar.
Last year at around this same time, I was helping my sister move into another place, at the same time that I received word that reopening plans for my first year of college had been scrapped. Every morning I seem to be burdened by a sense of indignation that follows me everywhere, and I can only hope that it will soon go away. That’s all that I will say about that for now.
College Life: Hype vs. Reality
Conventional wisdom holds that college is a controlled environment to try and fail many things, especially friendships and other classifications of relationships with fellow students. But every time someone tells me this, I tend to reply, “Well, I’m not in the business of test dummies.” The whole idea that I may meet someone who is ephemeral in my life and only serves to sharpen my social skills is an idea that disgusts me. I’m being the Grinch, sure. Actually, I am very much eager to meet new people—I went to the same school from kindergarten through my senior of high school. In 2006, there were roughly 60 students in my cohort. By the time I graduated in 2020, there may have been 83 or 84. Regardless of the number of students to whom I had exposure, I think that the adults in my life who told me that high school is a time of social flourishing were either uninformed or lying.
So what am I left with, some conventional wisdom that won’t apply to me for another month? Guess I will just sit here for three more weeks (quarter system) as I watch the departure of my former high school classmates, closest allies, and yes, even those in the cohort below me. But just wait! the conventional wisdom says. Soon you’ll have many opportunities to make new friends! The conventional wisdom had better be right, and I am expecting to meet some extraordinary people. Of course, there are extraordinary people in all corners of the world. What tends to catch my attention the most may look something like an individual who is demonstrably pleasant, loving, and socially competent enough to develop and sustain relationships that are built on commonalities, as well as differences, and especially intimacy. No, I don’t mean that kind of intimacy, not exclusively. I mean a sense of liking and deep understanding. A handful of people I have met appear to satisfy these criteria, and a smaller subset of these people have other even more astonishing traits to be observed, such as an aura of tranquility or a mellifluous voice.
In the 1995 film Before Sunrise, two strangers meet on a train, go on an extended date across a city, and begin to fall in love. Barf, I know, but I can’t stop thinking about how Celine, the leading female, talks in one scene about how supposedly when we’re young we believe there are many people we’ll meet and thus many we’ll connect with, and how only when we’re older we realize it happens only a few times.
As much as I want to believe that I will find as many people as promised, I think that that outlook assumes a few things: (1) the manner in which you meet people is statistically consistent, (2) you don’t filter the people you meet as a consequence of the life you life, and (3) the people that you admire will admire you. The harsh reality appears to be far more entropic.
Off to College
Some boxes arrived in the mail the other day. I had ordered them to begin packing my belongings and will ship them to campus once everything is ready. While drafting this post at home the other night, my mother came into the room and saw that I had already packed most of my college-bound possessions neatly in the boxes. Everything was precisely placed and left no open space. Felt like a geometry puzzle, so I enjoyed it. No, geometry does not sound fun enough. Think Tetris. But then it galled me to see my mother express visible excitement about these boxes and the anticipation of embarking on “a new journey.” For whatever reason—insecurity or indignation, I’m guessing—the positivity differential between us only lowered my spirits further. Maybe in the past I would have celebrated beside her, but something about this moment in time feels solemn, not joyous.
I sincerely hope that I don’t end up consumed by my frustration. Maybe in September I will be able to team up with these other students, many of whom will rightfully have a smidgen of disillusionment along with me, to sublimate our negative experiences and channel them for good. How? I haven’t figured that out yet.