“Ah, well, yeah, that’s a really good question…As I mentioned, I have that broad, abstract idea of what I’d like to be doing, but I suppose, I guess, the issue is what that looks like realistically in, well, an actual job title,” I totally sputtered.
“…Nina. You need to do your homework – get on Google, and do your homework. No one’s giving you a job if you don’t even know what job you want.”
And that is a concise summary of a 15-minute conversation I had on a planter in the quad with a woman who got straight to the point about the fact that I wasn’t getting the point. It was a reality-check treatment I hadn’t yet had the honor of experiencing from anyone else I had spoken to about post-grad work. By the end of that call, my only remaining thought was to thank her for her time (she had to “be at a meeting now”) and for being so direct (I decided against “cutthroat”) with advice. But then, after we hung up, my lasting realization was how difficult it had been to articulate myself, even when I thought I knew how. I hadn’t realized how lost I was.
Fumbling over words is, generally, not enjoyable. At a place like Stanford, where rhetoric skills are acknowledged as necessary and thus require two quarters of training, most of us take for granted that smooth speech equates with intelligence. We are aware that being able to explain something well often means knowing it well, too.
Now, if we take the above and stick it in a discussion section – even here at Stanford – what do you get? You get professors who say the following:
“I don’t get these kids. I know they can talk – they start babbling as soon as class is over. But in class, they’re completely silent. They must be smart, but this is ridiculous.”
That’s a comment I overheard last year in the Department of History, where discussion sections are common. And we are those kids. Obviously no single section can fully characterize a student, since we all attend classes that we personally find utterly fascinating or downright dozy. But I know that in many, there are students who have something to say but are furiously editing it in their heads lest it accidentally exit in run-on form and make them feel “stupid.” We hold a pervasive fear of that feeling – especially on the stage we often make section out to be. So ideas don’t get to interact, and nothing gets figured out.
Other times, we are the willing center of attention and take charge in a conversation or a heated debate. Unexpectedly, I’ve found that this is the birthplace of so many little lies – at the moment we realize we’re on a charismatic roll, and “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” would interrupt it. There seems to exist a tiny juncture in most energetic talks, perhaps most often with acquaintances, where we decide whether to hesitate honestly over our opinion, or move right along with something easy and plain ol’ untrue. And we may feel a twinge of inward embarrassment afterward – but it fades, right? Ultimately, this habit emphasizes how much we value the image of coherency, even at the expense of truth.
But through a volume’s worth of writing this column and talking about confusing questions with confused people (including me, you and maybe someone else), I’m consistently reminded of why conversations are great. (There are many reasons: 1. You can have one over coffee. 2. You can have one over tea. 3. The other person is awesome.) One of the reasons is that it forces us to construct something legitimate out of a mental mess. Communication is ambitious – it demands to be understood.
Instantaneously, right as our words roll off of our tongues, we feel if they fumble. When we confuse ourselves, when we get tongue-tied, when we can’t make logical sense of our own sentiments – we know. When our thoughts go public, we see them for what they are, and sometimes they’re fine, and sometimes they fail.
But wait – is it “failure,” really? Is being lost for words or hesitation or thinking silence really so painful? Or are we finally giving our crazy, potentially damaging thoughts a chance to get fine-tuned, probably with the help of someone else, too? Sometimes we need to hear our inner nonsense out in the air before we ever realize it was unnecessary nonsense at all.
Not everything has to be shared, of course. But, sometimes, it’s in the struggle to articulate ourselves that we see ourselves in real terms. And for that, I think we first have to know how completely, hopelessly lost we are before anything can be found at all.
Nina likes to talk it out, and hopefully you’ve gotten the non-subtle, weekly hint that she wants to talk to you, too. She’s asking for your thoughts. So email her at ninamc “at” stanford “dot” edu.