So I come along with random little projects like the “Let’s talk about anything” doohickey. They have no real name, no budget, no meeting times, and no particular structure. It takes maybe an hour, tops, late on a Sunday night, for me to spam six or seven e-mail lists with a message that says, “Hey, this thing at Stanford bugs me, what do you think about this idea?” Then, to my amazement, tremendous numbers of strangers write back thanking me for my “innovation” and “bravery” and asking how they can help. Meanwhile, all the well-established and prolific student groups dedicated to curing cancer and/or ending global poverty get no attention. It’s crazy what’s considered passé at Stanford.
How many “Projects” do we have on campus now that are dedicated to mental wellness? We’ve got Project Love, Project Compassion, Project Happiness, the Resilience Project…and those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head. That’s four projects dedicated to very similar causes.
And how about our tutoring groups? How many dozens of those do we have? And how about environmental groups? You can hear Stanford tour guides trumpeting to their awestruck audiences that we have, what, over 700 groups on campus? But take away all the groups that don’t actually exist anymore, and the groups that don’t actually do anything, and the groups that are near-duplicates of each other, and you have how many left? I’ve got five bucks that says it’s fewer than 40.
On my long list of “Bizarre Habits That Stanford Students Have,” near the top is that whenever we see a problem in the world or here at home, or whenever we want to make some kind of change at all, our gut instinct is to go create a new student group. Or a committee, or an initiative, or a project. For some reason we do this even if there’s already something on campus dedicated to doing exactly what we want to be doing. The result is that there are about half a gajillion groups at the Activities Fairs that all have the same cause but are competing against each other for tabling space. I remember going to my very first Activities Fair looking for a tutoring group, and being so overwhelmed by the selection that I ended up not joining any.
We’ve been bred, I think, to have the attitude of “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” (How many times in high school, when you were assigned a group project, did you end up doing all the work?) We think that this is leadership. But I think it’s a mix of mistrust and pride.
You create the 300th group for “Good Cause X” because the way you want to save the planet is innovative; surely none of the existing 299 groups have ever thought about your idea. And you don’t want to run it by them first because, well, they might screw it up, or they might steal it, or maybe they won’t think your idea is as great as you do. Who cares if they have more experience, resources, and networking history than you do? You don’t want to join any of those old groups because then you’ll feel like you have to follow someone else’s rules, and while you know how to do public speaking and grant-writing and self-promoting, you’ve never really been that confident about actually working with other people, and you’d kind of like to put “created a new student group” on your resumé anyway. In fact, it would be great if someone could just give you a few thousand bucks to work by yourself on your Big Idea the way you know it ought to be done.
The reality is the world has never been changed by someone doing anything by him or herself. And while you might think your Big Idea is the cat’s pajamas, odds are there’s someone else at this school who has an even better take on your vision than you do.
So enough of this “leader” and “follower” business. I think if you want something done right, you don’t do it yourself; instead, you vocally be yourself and tell people what’s on your mind and see what they think about it, and then, if they’re interested, you do it together. If you believe you need a new student group to do what you want to do, you’re selling everyone else — and yourself — way too short.
To sign up for the first meeting of Robin’s new student group, “Against New Groups at STanford” (ANGST), please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.