Saul Chandler began his life in the fast-paced, hyper-competitive classical music scene in New York City. A young student in the 1960s, he was a budding, promising prodigy in Juilliard’s revered pre-collegiate division. He was grinding out Bach partitas, breezing through romantic concerti and meticulously picking through Paganini etudes. Chandler’s teachers had dubbed him their newest hope for the classical music community, comparable and perhaps even superior to his older classmate, the esteemed Itzhak Perlman.
But at one point, a 13-year-old Chandler would pack up his bow and violin for the last time. He would never return to the stage, let alone even open his case to cast a glance at the instrument. Chandler gave up his prodigious talent in favor of a relatively “average” life; he would spend his years bouncing between blue collar jobs and eventually settle with working on boats in City Island.
Though many would see Saul Chandler’s decisions as a tale of a lost soul, one who gave up on a rare opportunity, there is much to learn from letting go of obligations, of toxic relationships, of forced mindsets, of perfectionism.
In a university that hosts thousands of students who are often accustomed to being competitive and comparable with the Itzhak Perlmans of the academic world, the decision to take a step back is frowned upon. There is an inherent pressure to perform at such a level that positions you for high accolades and for center-stage attention. Students have long been trained to signal their intelligence to both their peers and professors and are further pushed to follow through on their inherent ability; six-figure jobs and prestigious fellowships are deemed the natural progression after graduating from a school like Stanford. In the grooming process that is our undergraduate careers, it may seem as if the courses we take and the research we conduct is merely part of this game, as if we’re puppets playing to a marionette’s idea of how our lives should play out.
But as Chandler’s story shows, there is equal merit to finding behind-the-scenes, personal success in the little things in life. Stanford’s “natural” progression does not need to be natural or fixed at all— the paths to individual success are not definitively quantified by medals and accolades, and rather exist uniquely to each person.
This isn’t to say that those who seek fellowships or naturally high paying jobs are “selling out” or not genuine. There merely needs to be more emphasis on the career paths not normally glamorized by prestige or status. Alumni have gone on to conduct careers in academia, engineering, law, but also in less advertised areas as secondary education, real estate or in conducting small businesses. Each has an undergraduate degree from Stanford in common, but each took a uniquely winding career path.
For Saul Chandler, finding his path meant giving it all up. He had Perlman-level ability but threw it away for work that didn’t send him to tears, work that didn’t make him question his very existence. Too often it feels that many students here are going through these motions, pursuing paths or extracurriculars they subconsciously believe to be “right” for their forthcoming illustrious careers … but at a price. It becomes the case where striving for success means sacrificing stability. The rise of posts in the popular Facebook page Stanford University Places I’ve Cried that describe people despairing over academic inability and not meeting these societally-inflicted expectations can attest to that.
And so, Chandler’s story is less of a far-off tale of woe than it is a strikingly similar testament to the power of simply learning to let go. The pressure of a high salary or a Fields medal needs to be eased off of the shoulders of students — refusing to strictly think of our undergraduate careers as less vocational and awards-based and instead imagine it as an opportunity for academic and personal growth. And regardless of the kinks and turns in the road we may encounter — whether it be quitting an instrument or simply dropping that one CS course — our success should not be measured by the financial or resume-based outcome at any point in our lives.
Undergraduate life does not need to be a precarious balancing act among activities important and obligational to us. For Saul, life following his musical departure was a life free of meaningless and ultimately harmful obligations. Quitting made him a fallen wonder child, but shipbuilding made him a redeemed person. Thus, relinquishing ourselves from the same types of emotional stress burdens would not be for lack of ability, but rather for redemption of sanity.
You can contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.