Winding down to your last month in college, grasping at straws of wisdom to carry through to your upcoming professional life? Stop. And consider these words from one of the world’s premier authorities on R&D and the world of academia – on how to pave your own road to success.
A college degree is a ticket to opportunity. You learn to think. You develop an expertise. You become a better communicator. But sometimes it all feels a little too serious – as if there is only one path to knowledge or success.
Universities and colleges are wonderful places, but they are not perfect. The academic environment can be political and bureaucratic. Decision-making can be misguided and arbitrary. Government funding agencies can make rotten calls as well as good ones.
At the same time, not everyone upholds the same standards and the best are not always rewarded. All professors are human. They suffer from prejudices and errors of judgment. They can be slothful, greedy, or proud.
And, of course, the students are no different!
When I was in the final year of my degree, despite being an insufferable enthusiast who couldn’t wait to enrol in graduate school, I loved reading unflattering novels about intellectuals and academic life.
My favourites were Auto-da- Fé by Elias Canetti, The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
The academy provides the perfect location for stories about the purpose of enquiry, the limits of knowledge, the tension between physical and intellectual needs, and the pricking of pretensions.
My own contribution to the genre is a humorous philosophical novel, ‘A Theory of Nothing’, which pokes fun at the tendency for modern intellectuals to detach themselves from reality.
It light-heartedly asks whether we could be more discriminating in weighing the importance of different examples of scientific and scholarly work.
It lampoons those scholars in the humanities and social sciences whose research has been tainted by envy of the intellectual and institutional success of the scientific paradigm.
It explores questions about the discovery process, the tension between theory and experiment, and the potential for new knowledge and new technologies to be abused, once their creators lose control of them.
Above all, though, the book encourages members of the university and college crowd to laugh at their own expense.
From time to time, it’s good to laugh at ourselves.
It alleviates our worries about the opinions of others and opens our minds to the possibility of change. It also makes us receptive to the notion that even our most cherished ideas might be wrong.
One of the lessons of life is that few things ever happen quite the way they’re supposed to, no matter how dedicated or brilliant you are. That’s a lesson most people learn the hard way.
At its best, college experience teaches brilliance and dedication. Yet this process – important and valuable as it may be – can sometimes feel like a conveyor belt, and undermine perspective about the twists and turns that will lie ahead.
That’s why I encourage all aspiring graduates to read fiction. Whether the stories you read make you laugh or cry, they will expand your ability to appreciate wider truths.
Thomas Barlow is the author of three books, most recently 'A Theory of Nothing'.