Snapshot: college, being a transitioner, and doing things that matter

I originally wrote this in November of 2010, about 6 months after I graduated from college. This is probably the most clearly I’ve ever been able to articulate what college meant to me. It’s also interesting to me to see how much I cared about doing “things that matter” at the time. I forget all too easily that my desire to make a difference didn’t start when I joined the Global Shapers or the Awesome Foundation. Although I haven’t found a singular driving passion that compares to Olin, I like to think that I’m doing pretty well so far.

Ellen and I talked about personal changes that she’s noticed post-Olin. The biggest one that stood out to both of us was that even though she likes her job, she’s not excited. It isn’t that she’s not jazzed about what she’s working on (most of the time, anyway), but that she isn’t passionate about it in quite the right way. After all, there is a whole grown up world concept of liking your job and finding your passion and such, but it’s still very different from what we experienced in college.

So we talked about how we feel now, and how we felt in college. Namely, we were obsessed with Olin. I don’t think it was in a bad way at all, because I believe that what we did at Olin was both meaningful and life changing. However, the fact of the matter is that we really were obsessed. We may not have talked about it constantly, but it came up very frequently. We thought about it all the time. And more importantly, we prioritized it above other things. I was a little more balanced, in that I never really had to think about whether or not I would prioritize Olin above classes. I went through school with a “everything gets done” mentality, and I actually was able to get everything done. However, for people like Jeff and Ellen there was no question about it at all: Olin was their priority. If it came down to doing something for class or doing something for Olin they would choose Olin. That’s just the way it was for them.

We were all extremely dedicated. And it wasn’t because we felt some external obligation, like we owed the school for our free tuition (at least not directly). We genuinely cared. No matter how tired, stressed out, frustrated, happy, or anything else we felt, we could be engaged in a discussion about Olin. We could switch from “I’m exhausted and going to bed right now” mode to “it’s 3:00am already and we’ve barely gotten started on this” mode in the space of a few minutes. For us it was a powerful emotional reaction, because we cared deeply about the issues we were discussing. Most of all we felt frustrated about the (many) parts of Olin that weren’t working the way we felt they should and excited whenever any of the parts did work the way we felt they should.

The thing is, since graduating neither of us (Ellen and myself, that is) has found something like that. Not even close. And Ellen came to grips with this today while trying to figure out exactly why she was feeling frustrated. She realized that what she’s working on, while cool, isn’t going to Change The World. This is a big demotivator because we’re the kind of people who want to have real impact. We don’t act very alike, but we share the same desire to matter. Working on issues at Olin made us feel like we mattered, because we could directly affect how things ran and what happened and who heard about our school and what their impressions of us were. Even better, we felt deeply connected to a mission that we thought was important and meaningful. To be able to say that we have done something to affect engineering education in the US, let alone the world, is a big deal. It feels like we’ve been able to contribute something of value to humanity, even if our part in it was comparably small (give us time; we’re only 22).

The problem is, once you leave Olin you have to let it belong to the people who are still there. It isn’t ours anymore because we’ve graduated, and we have to take our hands off it and let the new freshmen fill that space. It’s only what’s fair and right, since we’re not on campus any longer and don’t have a good handle on what’s happening there. But it does leave us with a gaping hole to fill, and a sort of cliche search for meaning.

To address this problem, we’ve decided to find our own meaning. We’re moving on to something else, because the choice is to find a new passion or to stop having one altogether. And while being part of Olin felt like having an impact, it’s pretty small compared to what we will be capable of. So we’re going to figure out exactly what we want to focus on, and we’re going to do something about it. We’ll pick a big ticket issue, something that really matters in the world, and we’ll educate ourselves on it, and then we’ll devise a plan for being part of the solution. It will take a long time. It will be hard. But if our experience transitioning from the always-on culture at Olin to the so-called real world is any indication, it will be entirely worth it.

2 thoughts on “Snapshot: college, being a transitioner, and doing things that matter”

  1. It’s funny that you describe your feelings about Olin in the same way that some describe feelings of infatuation: “obsessed…” “it came up very frequently,” “thought about it all the time,” “we prioritized it above other things.” ” Your word choice parallels what many say love feels like. That says a lot about how you relate to your projects.

    As for the need to find a new passion, obviously you have found a lot of meaning from your work with various organizations, but it could be valuable to think through what it was about Olin that inspired your passion. Was it the alternative approach to education, the idea of learning by doing, the strong community, the many awesome people who made Olin what it was? Chances are you were inspired not just by Olin, but by some principles, practices, and/or people that were present in your experience of Olin and that you can either find or create for yourself in other places. I’d be interested to hear more about what in particular may have inspired such strong, motivating feelings.

    1. Funny you should say that Kelly – this actually came up in a conversation I had the day before I found this essay! I was talking to a friend who recently had her first child, and she was talking about the sense of clarity that it’s given her, because she always knows what the most important thing in her life is. I related it at the time to how my friends and I felt about Olin, and how it seemed a little similar. I’m not sure that it is exactly like emotional love, but there is an analogous sense of commitment and responsibility, as well as overwhelming purpose. It’s also a little similar to how some people talk about religion – probably why we half-jokingly call Olin a cult.

      Addressing the second part of your comment:
      I think it’s almost a kind of meta-flow – Olin was a combination of “challenge” (changing engineering education) combined with “skill” (not only our individual skills, but that we had the ability to apply them to something). Czikszentmihaly does theorize that flow is the most positive emotional state we experience…

      That’s kind of general though. For me, it was a number of factors: being around excited people (I’m really sensitive to how enthusiastic the people around me are), feeling like the problem I was working on mattered, having ownership of the school. One of the challenges since graduating has been realizing that I don’t have a specific, specialized “topic” I’m passionate about (and that a lot of my enthusiasm for education in particular was actually inspired by the people around me). I’m more generally interested in seeing how new ideas create change and shape people. It’s cool on an interaction level and highly relevant to design, but it’s also hard to pin down to specific projects.

      I’m working on it, though, and I am really happy with the things I’m doing! I know I’ll find a project that booms into something I feel as strongly about, if I just keep acting on my ideas.

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