This post originally appeared as a comment in Ben Casnocha’s blog, in response to his review of Tom Wolfe’s controversial novel (is there any other kind) of modern elite college life, Charlotte Simmons, in which a smart, shelted small-town girl goes to Dupont (aka Duke) University and discovers a world of alcohol, drugs, casual sex, and an anti-intellectual atmosphere.
Warning: This post has nothing to do with business or entrepreneurship, and contains old-man reminiscences of my college days. If you hate my non-business content, you’d be advised to skip this one.
At the risk of seeming like an idiot because I haven’t actually read the book….
Tom Wolfe (who is after all a tremendously talented author if a bit of a huckster…for those who are interested, I’ll post an anecdote about the time I met Ken Kesey and what he thought of Tom Wolfe because of “The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test”) gets things right in a broad sense.
College in America is a disorienting and different place, especially at elite educational institutions.
I was in a similar position to Charlotte Simmons; while I wasn’t a small-town boy, I went to Stanford when I was 15, and was thus considerably more sheltered than many of my classmates.
Nonetheless, sheltered doesn’t mean stupid–I was able to observe the college experience quite closely, and while my freshman year was 1990-1991, I don’t think things have changed that much since then. After all, even then we had email, MMORPGS, and students starting companies.
Especially at a place like Stanford, your freshman year is a time of adjustment. Your past is largely irrelevant, giving you a chance to re-invent yourself. Drugs, alcohol, and sex are more freely available, and there’s no parents around to police you. You’re spending more time with your peers than ever before, now that you’re actually living with them.
But one thing that you haven’t mentioned, that I think is crucial, is that when you go to a place like Stanford, 99% of the students were in the top 1% of their high schools. They were used to being the best and the brightest. But the harsh fact is that fully 50% of those people will (by definition) be average or below average compared to their peers.
If your identity is tied up in being an academic superstar, capable of handling any schoolwork with ease, suddenly competing against people who are your equals or even superiors can be a terrifying thing.
During my freshman year, for example, I got a B+, a horrifying experience for a fellow who hadn’t gotten anything less than an A since the 6th grade. And I was lucky.
Many people who planned to become doctors or engineers ran into the buzzsaw that is collegiate-level math and science.
I got a 70/100 on my physics final, and that put me as one of the top 3 in the class, with an A+.
My roommate, a smart fellow who is a very successful engineer today, got a 17–when do you think the last time was that he got a score like that?
All of these factors combine to seriously unhinge many students. The first time our dorm held a progressive (a party where every room on a floor serves a different alcoholic beverage, and the object is to sample them all), afterwards, the bathrooms were filled with vomiting National Merit Scholars and valedictorians.
I also remember the first time I was awakened on a Sunday morning by a call from my parents, and having to stifle a yelp of surprise when I saw a random female dormmate in my roommate’s bed (a one-night hookup fueled by alcohol…she later spent most of the year dating one of the resident assistants from a neighboring dormitory).
And there were certainly cautionary tales, like the fellow (now a successful coach) who grew drugs in their dorm room, or the friend (now a succesful hedge fund investor) who took to drinking Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle, or the other friend (now a respected physician and researcher) who had to be driven to the hospital for severe alcohol poisoning. Funny story that–that happened on Parents’ Weekend, and I had to explain that he must have gotten a stomach flu. That was after I had to loudly jangle my keys in the door to warn my roommate and his girlfriend to get some clothes on when my parents wanted to see my room–no cell phones back then to text message a warning!
The conclusion from all this is that for coddled youth, college is dangerous because it provides so much more choice than their prior life. Some of those choices are harmful, and some no doubt suffer greatly.
But that’s called growing up. At some point in your life, you need to make your own decisions, which means making your own mistakes as well.
I never got drunk, took drugs, or had sex with random women under the influence when I was in college. I found college a wonderful, perspective-expanding place, where I had tons of fun, got to meet lots of people who are still close friends today, yet learned a tremendous amount from my professors and peers.
And as you noticed from the brief bios interspersed with my war stories, even those who made their fair share of bad decisions turned out all right too.
Being a freshman is a powerful experience, but eventually you find yourself as a sophomore–older, wiser, and better for the experience.
But there really is nothing like that freshman year, and there’s a reason most people treasure that time in their lives. It’s your first chance to stand on your own, and you always remember that, even if you skin your knees.
P.S. As promised, here is my Ken Kesey and Tom Wolfe story.
When I was a sophomore, the late great Ken Kesey (the Merry Prankster, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, and general literary legend) came to speak at my dorm. He was a fantastic and inspirational speaker, and I was awed, especially as an aspiring writer.
Afterwards, various members of the dorm took Ken out to dinner, and thanks to a friend (she was dating the RA who had arranged the visit, though today she is married to my son’s godfather…funny how life works), I was invited along.
What a night! Ken was a truly sparkling conversationalist, though I think he probably always remembered me as the kid who didn’t drink mai tais with him (even when under peer pressure from a celebrity personal humor, I refused to compromise my stance on alcohol…I was probably a little too rigid, but what’s done is done).
We learned many things that night, including Ken’s secret for being so comfortable at speaking engagements (he habitually sipped a combination of orange juice, vodka, and LSD). At one point, the talk turned to Tom Wolfe.
“Ah,” said Ken, “There’s an old saying that applies here. Shit floats, and cream rises. The trick is telling the difference. Jack Kerouac: cream rises. Tom Wolfe: shit floats.”
I guess ol’ Ken wasn’t a fan of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test!”