A little over a year ago, in an inspiring piece of cinematography, a trio of now-graduated Stanford students asked us: How will you leave your legacy? Their work is a tribute to the unyielding dedication of Stanford students in pursuit of excellence in all areas of the University.
It’s also a challenge to all of us to aspire to excellence in our own way—to make our own mark on the University and on the world—though you’ve probably heard some high-ranking politician, media mogul, entrepreneur or University official deliver a speech with a similar message.
In this year’s Commencement address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg told graduates and family that “Stanford is more than just a world-class university: It’s part of a community that attracts people who are trying to discover and shape the future,” as if any of us needed reminding.
Parting shots from The Stanford Flipside, however, offered a very different challenge to students: to “laugh at yourselves, please…For the last four years, grownups have told you that you’re the future doctors, CEOs, activists, and politicians of our society. We’re not so sure — we’ve seen you drunk, after all.”
In an environment that always encourages us to leave a legacy and have an impact, The Flipside’s suggestion is refreshing. Big dreams and lofty ambitions, perhaps especially the most selfless or worthwhile ones, can quickly become intimidating and burdensome—to you as much as to your innocent friend, just trying to will themselves off to class—as much as they may motivate or inspire.
Reminding one’s self that the fate of humanity does not in fact rest on your individual shoulders, or that the rest of your life is not determined by your next exam, or even your next job, can ease the nasty combination of self- and externally-imposed pressure that upsets mental health.
Laughing at ourselves, The Flipside reminds us, “is an integral part of not being an asshole.” We’ve all probably interacted with someone who thinks a lot of themselves and isn’t too shy about it – perhaps not the most pleasant experience. As the Flipside says, “trying to maintain an untarnished image in the face [of] abundant evidence to the contrary is pretty much a Cardinal offense.”
My sense is that Stanford students understand this well. It’s part of our culture, symbolized by the idea of the “Stanford duck”—kicking very hard to stay afloat and excel, while maintaining a relaxed disposition.
But given that visibly showing stress isn’t terribly acceptable socially here, I wonder whether the relaxed disposition—part and parcel of laughing at one’s self—is actually honest, or even healthy.
Perhaps the act of trying to set aside one’s stress can actually relieve it to some extent, like the way smiling actually releases “happy” chemicals. With stress, though, this does not always work.
So when we laugh at ourselves, do we do it because we genuinely do not take ourselves so seriously, or because we do not want to be seen as pompous or immodest?
Or, from a similarly cynical perspective, do we laugh at ourselves because, in ultimate service to our goals, we think it might be valuable to take a breather and try to put things in perspective from a bigger picture, in order to finally trick ourselves into forgetting what (we feel) is at stake? If that’s the case, can we say that we truly are not taking ourselves too seriously?
So how do you actually make The Flipside’s recommendation work? How do you laugh at yourself—and not just half-heartedly or for the sake of appearances—on the same day as you try to discipline yourself, have a productive day, realize your long-term goals and maybe even try to change the world?
While The Flipside is probably right that 22-year-olds shouldn’t be in charge of everything (though that might at least solve our national long-term entitlements problem) and are probably lying to themselves if they think they’ve figured out the solution to world poverty, let alone the next ten years of their lives, isn’t taking one’s self seriously—perhaps even too seriously—a central ingredient to serious achievement?
One can imagine plenty of situations where not taking one’s self extremely seriously would require masterful self-deception, if doing so is even a realistic or desirable option. Why and how, for example, does a civil-rights activist laugh at himself?
Or, for that matter, a college student looking for a well-paying job in order to support her parents and siblings and pay off student loans? How can we make internal peace between these two demands?
My hypothesis is simple: to laugh at yourself honestly is to truly be of two minds. There won’t be peace—maybe the best possible scenario is stalemate. This does not qualify as advice, and isn’t a satisfactory resolution.
But maybe the upshot of this discussion is that consistency—the lack of which we often identify as ignorance or sloppiness—isn’t a desirable feature of life philosophies. Finding a consistent, unifying philosophy to guide our lives—already a bit of a fantasy—may also be unproductive.
Perhaps there’s a danger in being too attached to the ideal of consistency and the practice of constructing complete, impenetrable self-justifications and explanations for our behavior and our views, such that there’s just no room to laugh at ourselves. At least in this case, air-tight philosophies don’t seem to hold much water.