Last week, my creative writing teacher challenged our class to come up with project ideas. “Brainstorm what you want to do,” she encouraged, glancing over the students’ worried faces. “After all, it is your class.” She gave us the freedom to create. We had the power to invent a new character, a new scene. This liberating assignment quickly felt suffocating. There was the pressure to create something new, something never before seen, original, brilliant. This inane stress is a staple at Stanford. Regardless of class, activity, major, our ideas are hindered by this first and foremost question of brilliance and innovation. Does your idea have what it takes to be the next “big thing”?
Stanford’s startup culture is ingrained in our identity. Graduates have gone on to become daring actors, skilled innovators, engineers, professors, writers, artists, seemingly all at the top of their field, paving a path of constant modernization. As students we are encouraged to follow in their path — and do it before anyone else can. We are meant to create something never imagined and solve the unsolvable problems. This is what makes Stanford so great. We aren’t encouraged to be just successful, we are encouraged to make success. We are encouraged to reimagine the current boundaries of our modern society.
Google was created in Stanford dorm rooms. Elon Musk, a Stanford graduate, has developed cutting edge additions to the car market and the space field (Tesla and Space X respectively). Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown have pushed racial boundaries in film and T.V.. Evan Spiegel runs Snapchat with his Stanford fraternity brother. Sandra Day O’Connor graduated from Stanford to become the first woman on the Supreme Court. The list goes on and on. Stanford students are innovators, leaders, creators. They are meant to be successes.
This expectation manifests in endless ways in and around campus. Every day students are challenged to create new clubs, to find new ways to connect the student population to the outside world. Stanford Women in Politics was founded two years ago with that exact purpose: to introduce their members to successful female innovators. The Woman Community Center brings in accomplished speakers and experts in their field to talk to students. BASES hosts a startup competition every year.
Presidential and Senate slates are challenged with finding new ways to fix age old issues plaguing the student population. Many are running for unity, equality among different races, genders and income groups, Title IX rights, and more opportunity for lower income students.
This is not unique to Stanford. There is a pressure looming over every generation: Who’s going to come up with the next “big thing,” and who’s going to get to it first. My generation has grown up with Facebook and Apple, laptops and smartphones, Spotify and Google. To make your mark on the world, we’ve learned you have to do something that revolutionizes the way the world works.
In a sea of startups, solutions and innovation, I am drowning. Are there still good ideas left? And how can I find them? Everything feels done. Every plot line, essay idea, character, start-up, melody seems to have been mastered by the generations before me. I find myself in places where nothing I create seems worthy of making a difference. I don’t consider myself to be an inventor in any measure, and I would struggle to call myself an innovator. Does that mean I can’t make my mark on the world?
After giving us our assignment, my creative writing teacher granted us some advice. She quoted Ecclesiastes, an unusual phenomenon in such a secular university, telling us “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
I decided to write about Michael Jackson. There’s nothing new there; he has been dead for almost nine years. But I still care. Maybe if it matters to me, it will matter to someone. I don’t have the answers. It’s just one story. The next one will be better. Maybe the next one will be the one to change the world. But probably not.
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu