There is a moment when you reach the top step and position your foot for the following stair, only to find that there are no more steps to climb. The place where you imagined the stair would be feels hauntingly empty and, for a moment, you become dislocated in space. Disillusionment hits like a dose of antigravity. It pins you down and stares you jeeringly in the face, characterized only by the things it is not. It is an unwelcome weightlessness, an abrupt absence, a slow diminishing toward the mean. After all, “it is not the blow we suffer from but the tedious repercussive anticlimax of it” (William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!).
For the overqualified lot at Stanford, this feeling should sound familiar. Perhaps working at NASA was your dream, but after an unbearably boring summer internship you decided you didn’t want to go down that path anymore. Maybe you dreamt of becoming a concert pianist, and discovered that the hours of practice and isolation didn’t amount to perfection after all. You always hoped to impress your parents, but now when they beam and tell their friends about your bright future, you feel nausea instead of pride. It’s not that you failed, it’s that you saw a dream for what it was, a dream, and you decided to let it go.
The rose-colored glasses come off and you are at Stanford, not Hogwarts. The sky is no longer the limit. Maybe law school, or a startup, but certainly not the ambiguous and magical image you had of success when you came here. The clarity and finitude of failure would be welcome next to the hazy and indomitable weight of disappointment. I’m not talking about the disappointment of stress, or hard work, or bad grades. I’m talking about the disappointment of no longer believing in Santa Claus. Of admitting to yourself that you would rather be an accountant than Cat Woman. I know it sounds childish, but these things hurt.
Failing to reach a goal is nothing compared to the grief of admitting that the goal you set out to accomplish was a fantasy. We all have high expectations for ourselves, but we forget sometimes how high our expectations for the world can be. It brings to mind Captain Ahab in monomaniacal pursuit of a whale onto whom he projects the fantasy of redemption. The reader knows the white whale can’t possibly embody the redemption Ahab needs; Ishmael knows it too. But Ahab can’t bring himself to admit that the world will fall short of his expectations.
When you reach the last stair of your illusory staircase, you have a choice to stay at the top step wailing for someone to build you more stairs, like Ahab. Or you can admit that what you were chasing was a phantom, climb down the stairs, and set off on a new voyage. The only thing that will give you the strength to lick your wounds and start wandering again is the knowledge that just because a career in alchemy didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean that your search for the philosopher’s stone was in vain.
To the dreamers, the disillusioned, the disappointed: keep chasing your white whale, just know when to stop. Don’t let anyone tell you that you wasted your time if you change your mind mid-voyage. Even if you come home empty-handed, there is something you gained, just the same. You are a far better sailor than your critics.
Renée is out sailing. Try to find her at email@example.com.