Seeking the next ambition: What do you do after winning?

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April 25, 2008

3:36 AM

Of the many ten-dollar words I’ve learned at the College, one has held a lot of weight in recent weeks: teleology. Not only is this one of those polysyllabic wonders that rolls off the tongue — it’s also vital in discussing the sensations of your average Class of 2008 kid.

The esteemed “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines teleology as, among other things, “the fact or character attributed to nature or natural processes of being directed toward an end or shaped by a purpose.” The term derives from the Greek word “telos,” meaning “an ultimate end.” It just so happens to summarize the entire American education experience quite tidily, indeed.

For as long as I can remember, the goals of my young life have been defined for me — one sweeping, overarching objective has ceded naturally to the next. I haven’t needed to decide any “ultimate ends” because they’ve all been laid at my feet. I suspect I’m not alone in this, particularly not at an institution like this one.

But prior to now, I’ve never had much occasion to consider what it is that drives my day-to-day life, and why I’ve been so apt to follow said drives.

In high school, we vied for good grades and gained entry to Advanced Placement courses. We enrolled in such courses with aspirations of rising to the tops of our classes, thereafter seeking admission at top-notch universities. We had ambition for the sake of ambition. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Throughout the past years, things haven’t been too different. We struggle to maintain decent GPAs. We pursue various interests and extracurricular activities, knowing full well that our resumes grow glossier with each additional good deed. For whatever reason, we feel motivated to do great things in college.

In this pre-graduation world, our lives are endowed with telos by something outside of us. Parents, teachers, the SATs, undergraduate admissions standards, rigorous post-grad expectations: Something or other has inspired us to do stuff.

Something has kept us moving. Our processes and their meanings are supplied without asking. All we need to do is follow along.

Effective May 11, 2008, that kind of a priori teleology flies straight out the proverbial window. We’re through with it. We’ve finished the thing we set out to do some 21 years ago. Unless you’re pursuing graduate studies, you’re going to have to sit down and think long and hard about your own personal teleology. You’re going to have to decide what process to follow, what end to set to give your life meaning.

That’s a herculean task, even for someone clutching a freshly-stamped diploma. In a way, it beckons true adulthood, in some form or another. Since our first and foremost objective in life can no longer be getting good grades, we’re obliged to consider the mechanics of ambition, the reasons we want the things we want.

If you yearn for incredible wealth, why do you want it? Are material things, to you, the equivalent of happiness? If you aspire to rise to the top of your field, what are you hoping to find when you get there? If it’s a rich, rewarding family life you’re looking for, how will you cope with life when your own kids have grown up and flown the coop?

In teleological terms, it feels like our culture asks us to set long-term goals and, henceforth, to dedicate our every waking moment to the attainment and realization of these goals. This seems, at least, to be the preeminent advice of many self-help guidebooks and even a few mainstream religions.

As it turns out, though, after 21 years, I’ve had enough of goal-oriented lifestyles. Granted, I have plenty of ambitions I intend to pursue in the post-graduate world. It’s just that I’m not so bent on accomplishment for its own sake. The goal-oriented lifestyle assumes a direct correlation between success and happiness. Unfortunately, as any statistician can tell you, correlation doesn’t imply causation — the realization of your every dream does not necessarily beget everlasting bliss.

Personally, I find the greatest opportunities for happiness in a sort of anti-telos, the ad hoc way of life. I want to be able to revise my ambition on a daily basis, to embrace all things impromptu and spur-of-the-moment. I don’t mean to motivate you, but if college has taught me one thing, it’s that happiness thrives most with abundant contingency plans.

With our telos fulfilled, our ends met, the major consequent question isn’t “What next?” but “Why prescribe to teleology at all?” And this, I think, is the truly wonderful part about graduation: For the first time ever, we need only answer to ourselves.
Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.

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