On Safety Nets

And taking the next step

To jump or not to jump, that is the question.

At this point in my life I feel like a suitable metaphor is that of a tower—a skyscraper breaking through a canopy of clouds. On the lower levels sit arithmetic, basic algebra, reading comprehension, chapter books, middle-school crushes, graduations, calculus, papers, parties, graduations, first-jobs, transitions, office Christmas parties, suits, dark shoes, weddings, mortgages and somewhere up above there are boardrooms, penthouse suites, changing-worlds, and billion dollar deals being done. 

The tower is typically represented by the word “institution.” The institutions we have grown up in, the institutions we are currently in. They house us, feed us, and keep the dirt off our feet. Within them we can rise.

This is a lesson I still don't fully appreciate—that the world has existed for much longer than any one of us has been alive and that most worthwhile terrain has been either built upon or claimed. This means firstly, that as we navigate the world we will inevitably encounter institutions with rich histories, thick walls, and vaults of knowledge. In many cases this is a good thing—it means that we can stand on the shoulders of giants, learn from those who have come before us, get our wheels manufactured in China for a fraction of the cost. I would in most cases, much rather find myself in the comfort of an air-conditioned building than out in the middle of a desert with sandy feet and coarse lungs flailing as I try to set up shelter. To get to Harvard we had to jump through a few hoops, do a few waggle dances, iron out a few essays, but nothing too strenuous—a non-lethal amount of bureaucracy in return for a generally magnanimous supreme leader. For the most part we have been treated well. 

However, the tower is a Socratic argument. Each upward step is the most compelling of all the available options, but few make it to the destination without feeling jaded and destitute. The next stage is always knowable, predictable, safe; but at each stage one rubs shoulders with people who wished they had jumped sooner and not come up so high. Long ago, they could look over a windows edge and see a canopy to fall into and be caught. Now the distance is too much, the risk of a parachute not opening or a wire getting caught is too high. The floors are strewn, in dwindling numbers, with a mechanical ensemble, those who have never known what it is like to jump. At the very top, you are told, exist only the most distinguished of people—the rest either stagnate or fall, the atmosphere up there does not support mere mortals. The point is that all those who dream must jump at some point. 


And for those who decide that they must jump, the only question that remains is one of timing. 

Those who jump too soon, or too low in the institution, are children leaping off garden walls—ecstatic in their own bliss but with ideas that have not been tested against the best. Institutions like Harvard collect great minds together and help push us to places that our inward, free-thinking, adolescent selves cannot hope to go alone. Those who jump too soon never receive the training needed to thrive in any field. They have few mentors, little support, no yardsticks and sparse opportunities for growth. Jump too soon and mistimed rebellion will leave you resentful and scraping. You will be the man on the street corner, shouting how he “coulda been som'body!!” but ultimately has nothing to show for all his non-conformity.

For those who hold on too long, an even worse fate awaits. Those who hold on too long find their skin melding into the very institutions they are part of. Those who fail to jump while they still have a safety net beneath them end up like the protagonist in Coetzee's “Youth”—making small sacrifices here and small concessions there until not even the core of their person remains. Death by a thousand cuts. Congratulations.

Trusting institutional knowledge and pre-prescribed pathways is surely an act of humility. At any stage of life there is an infinite amount that is unknown, and trusting the knowledge of the past is therefore an intelligent thing to do. We berate our peers for taking “cushy” jobs in finance and consulting, citing that salaries, prestige and comfort are poor substitutes for the kind of fulfillment that they could—in theory—get by being less risk-averse and more trusting of their own resilience. These people, we feel, have so much habitualized jumping through hoops that the step from college-life to work-life feels like just another big round hula to step through. I suspect that many of them are just as confused as we are. They are unsure of whether now is the right time to jump. But we must all jump eventually, to learn how to fall, just in case we are one of the select few who can fly.

Awais Hussain ’15 is a joint philosophy and physics concentrator in Eliot House.


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