My Pick for Album and Song of the Year

December 30, 2011

Bon Iver’s self-titled album with the song Holocene. I think Justin Vernon of Bon Iver sums it up best in his interview with All Songs Considered on NPR:

But I think for me, the music that has always resounded with me — and art as well — is when it feels a little bit like it’s coming from a person. And it’s coming from a visceral place. A place that is maybe trying to explain something that isn’t explained yet.



On the meaning of Holocene, Vernon says:

Yeah, yeah. Holocene. Holocene is a bar in Portland, Ore., but it’s also the name of a geologic era, an epoch if you will. It’s a good example of how all the songs are all meant to come together as this idea that places are times and people are places and times are… people? [Laughs.] They can all be different and the same at the same time. Most of our lives feel like these epochs. That’s kind of what that song’s about. “Once I knew I was not magnificent.” Our lives feel like these epochs, but really we are dust in the wind. But I think there’s a significance in that insignificance that I was trying to look at in that song.

And, I think if I had to sum up my year, it would relate to something like that — that so much of growing up is finding the significance in your insignificance. There is nothing yet there is everything. The world does not revolve around us, and yet, the world is a reflection of us — our decisions, our lives, our relationships, our human impulses, and our rare abilities to rise above them courageously and imagine the world differently.  The lack of “magnificence” in our individual lives adds up to something far greater than any of us could ever conceive, and you come to understand how interconnected it all is.

Vernon continues:

…You’ve grown up, 25, 26 years old. And now you have to realize you’re kind of in control of most of the stuff happening in your life, and if you’re not happy about them, you have to actually do stuff about it. And there were dark times during the For Emma tour where I was homesick, or I was not figuring stuff out or whatever. But I think the last three years has been mostly about getting patted on the back every time I make a decision that is good; that isn’t based on some bad set of points. That’s good for community or music. And not based on any other decisions. And I think trying to get healthy and treat myself better and treat people around me better, it’s much healthier now. And I have [For Emma] to thank for that, but not because of the success that it brought. But because it was my last chance to do something, to actually step out and be myself and not edit anymore. And I think the metaphor for the rest of my life is kind of everything keeps growing and glowing at the same time…


14-Year Old Boy Stands Up for Gay People Everywhere

December 30, 2011

This boy gives me hope for the world.  He shows more wisdom, maturity and comfort than most people on this planet. We need more people like him, giving others the courage to talk about embracing who they are.

“I too hope that one day people can be judged not by the color of their skin or by the people that they love but by the content of their character.”

Riley on Marketing

December 28, 2011

If YouTube existed back in the day, this probably would have been me captured on camera.  I never played with Barbies. I never got the point. I hated everything about princesses.  In fact, my favorite book was The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munch because it ends with the Princess telling off Prince Charming (Ronald) because after her castle burns down and she’s left with nothing to wear but a paper bag.  Ronald comments that she looks awful, and she lets him have it! I could never get enough of that book. And, my father probably got the most pleasure out of reading it with me.

I also very much resented baseball and football. Why couldn’t girls play them? So, without further adieu, I give you Riley… Sing it, sister!

Creative Juice: A Dozen Key Lessons for Creative Dreamers

December 22, 2011

Click here for the full article.

Content excerpted from The Joy Letter
A free, bi-weekly ezine with practical tools
for creative dreamers

Some highlights/overview:

Lesson 1: Characteristics of Creative Geniuses

Some of us have it. Some of us don’t. Some of us just haven’t accessed it fully.
1. The Creative Channel is on all the time. They simply have to tune in, and boom – they’re off in that wonderful, rich creative place where inspiration lives.

2. They feel things deeply … and need to express it. I notice this particularly around my friends who are actors … their emotions run so freely and powerfully, that they feel everything twice as intensely. Furthermore, they let you know it.

3. They have natural empathy. Geniuses tend to know how you’d feel at any given moment, so they have a need to give away their feelings. An interviewer once asked Broadway composer Steven Sondheim if he could write a song about anything, and he replied, no – but that he could write about anyone, as long as he knew who the character is.

4. They find beauty in unlikely places the rest of us miss. I’m thinking of the 19th century French artists Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet who found enduring beauty in common haystacks and down at the heels prostitutes. True geniuses
love the bittersweet, the forgotten, the simple.

5. They’re not afraid to cry. The creative genius knows that tears are the juice of life, whether they are tears of happiness, despair or simply deep relating.

6. They’re different and often pay a price for it. Creative geniuses often have childhoods marked with ridicule or isolation. And those tough times can continue right on through adulthood, though modern times have made such non-conformity more acceptable. I’m thinking of people like Oscar Wilde, Frida Khalo, Orson Welles, Michael Jackson, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andy Warhol.

7. They are brave. Many a genius is trained by social ostracism to be brave and strong in standing up for their work. They know their work is valid despite what the crowd says, and they stick by it steadfastly. And public opinions can sway, often long after the artist’s death. Think of Vincent Van Gogh, who only sold two paintings in his entire lifetime.

8. They are prolific. Typically, creative geniuses are always creating. It’s simply what they do. Cole Porter, for instance, wrote more than 800 songs. And he wrote them wherever he went: on luxury cruise decks, or weekend jaunts to the country. Porter, who was notoriously stoic, said he finished one of his songs while waiting for rescue, after his legs had been crushed by a horse.

9. They simply can’t do a half-baked job. Look at all the geniuses of the world, like Michelangelo, who literally changed the world because they refused to settle for less. In fact, Michelangelo was famous for literally eating and sleeping with his work, yet never being completely satisfied. About his work in the Sistine Chapel, he said; “I am no painter!”

10. They love their work deeply. For this example, I turn to my own father, John Falter, who was an artist. A friend asked once what he’d do if he could do absolutely anything in the world. He replied, “I’d go up to my studio and paint.” For some artists, this love is the big one. Michelangelo, who never married, said: “I already have a wife who is too much for me; one who keeps me unceasingly struggling on. It is my art, and my works are my children.

Lesson Two: How Sex and Creativity Connect

1. It’s all about surrender. The more you can get out of your head, and simply let go, the further into your process you will go. And the grander the result will be.

2. The real communication is entirely beyond words. When an actor gets up to deliver a monologue, or a poet composes a sonnet, the words take you only half the way there. The rest happens between the lines, in the emotional truth with which it’s delivered. Same with sex. And without that emotional truth… well, it’s all a lot of hooey.

3. The spiritual usually comes into play. My belief is that all of this gets handed to us on that big Universal platter. And your choice is to accept or decline. So truly authentic creative or sexual endeavors can’t help having a mystical or divine underlayer.

4. You can’t do it unless you really, truly want to. OK, sure. You can fake your way into bed with a relative stranger, or stumble along writing a book you don’t care about. But you’re not going to sustain it. The sex will be cheap and easy; the manuscript will sputter and die. Why? Because you don’t really, truly want to be there.

5. Both require bravery. Deep connections make us passionate lovers, and fearless communicators. We act from our most vulnerable spot; the little piece of ourselves that’s most hidden and protected, yet full of the greatest power and truth.

6. Lust makes you stupid. But love makes you wise. I saw this little quote on a therapist’s bulletin board, and it is so very true. When it comes to creating, the lust for glory and fame makes us do silly, inauthentic things we later regret. It’s the same with lust for inappropriate people. On the other hand, when we get it right – boy, is it right! Authentic relationships and creative endeavors are fine, powerful teachers who leave us much wiser, and much stronger.

7. You’re not going to be satisfied until it’s over. Not pursuing that book, or business, or creative project that keeps bugging you is like walking away from sex mid-act. Beginning may be awkward; you may feel shy and vulnerable. But once you get going, the passion to continue takes hold and you simply cannot stop until you are complete. (On the other hand, you can walk away easily from half-baked acts of love or creative projects. That’s how you know when it’s the real thing.)

8. The more you give, the more you get. You’re not going to have a knock-out painting exhibition if you hold back with the brush. Nor are you going to get Lover of the Year if you lay back and simply wait to receive. Both require energy and the desire to give.

9. Both make you feel much more alive. Enough said.

10. At their best, both are all wrapped up with love. Both sex and creating require the generous, uninhibited sharing of your heart. And the more you can open your heart and let the floodgates open on your soul, the more profound will be your experience. And your impact.

Lesson Six: Avoid Creative Anorexia

We can do what we want, but only if we are brave enough to seize the initiative — even if it means not listening to Mom and going it alone. The urge not to provide ourselves with what we need in life is a sort of creative anorexia, 12 deprivation that is all about a distorted picture of who we are and what we deserve…

Perhaps the road to what you want won’t be fast, easy or lined with gold, but it will be one hundred percent honest. And that provides riches you can’t even begin to count. So get out there, make a transitional plan you can stick to, and begin to do what you want. I’m here to say that you do, indeed, deserve it.

Lesson Seven: Sure-Fire Creativity Inducers

TRY THIS: The Do’s and Don’t of Meditation
The Do’s …

  • Do check in regularly with God, or whom ever you recognize that great big Source to be.
  • Do allow yourself enough time to get still and relaxed.
  • Do let the answering machine pick up.
  • Do notify others around you that you need some quiet time
  • Do sit on a pillow or cushion if you’re seated on the floor that’s high enough to let your knees naturally slope towards the floor; this supports you back.
  • Do keep a sweater or shawl nearby in case you get cold.
  • Do take everything off your lap.
  • Do keep a notebook, pen, tape recorder, or an instant messager nearby if you want to make a few notes or do some automatic writing.
  • Do allow your body to move or sway if you so desire.
  • Do be patient and allow your practice to improve over time.
  • Do fully extinguish all flames and burning embers when you are finished meditating.
  • Do remember to say thanks.

Lesson 9: Just Ask

The article goes on, but I say enough said.

Lesson Ten: What Skiing Can Teach You about Your

If you’ve ever looked down a black diamond run, you pretty much know exactly how terrifying this sounds.  Then again, I’ve only been skiing three times in my life, so I’m not really one to talk.  That reminds me of her Lesson Three on remembering how little I know and to be patient…

Lesson #1: You can’t improve without landing on your can from time to time.
So why, at age 43, am I even trying to ski bumps when the rest of my middle-aged lady friends are happy on the lovely, flat, groomed trails with nary a flake out of place? Because I can no longer ski with my children or my husband, and so am being forced to improve.

Lesson #2: Learn the hard stuff while you’re still young.
I learned how to ski thirteen years ago when I married a skier. My ability level rose to intermediate, and stayed parked there for the last eleven years. It 22 always seemed too hard and too scary to ski the advanced ‘black diamond’ trails, with their steep embankments and their unexpected outcroppings of bumps.

Navigating the moguls in particular seemed impossible to me. Yet, ironically enough, this is what my husband and my eleven-year-old daughter love to ski the most.

Lesson #3: Whatever your resist in life will eventually come to haunt you.

To remedy my problem, I decided to face it head on. I invited my daughter to go up to the mountain with me on a Saturday, and teach me how to get down the stuff she loves, and she graciously agreed. We got off the chair lift, and she led me to her favorite field of moguls, a trail innocently enough called MacKenzie. “Just ski it,” she advised, and set off to prove her point, zipping this way and that through the first patch of moguls, three-footers that defied any kind of skiing logic I could come up with. I had no idea how I was going to ‘just ski it.’

That’s when the words of my friend Christine, a former ski instructor, came back to me: “Don’t look at the trail below you. Just figure out where you’re going to turn first. Then look for your next turn, and your next. Pretty soon you’ll
be down it.” Historically, I’d always stood at the top of a hard trail, nursed a good five to ten minutes of panic, then made a decision I couldn’t ski the thing, and promptly slid my way down to the bottom, mostly on my butt. Or I defiantly took my skis off and walked down along the edge. Or I harangued my husband for a good few minutes. Never, once, had I just calmly tried it. “Let’s go, Mom!” called Teal, waiting patiently. So I set off, looking for the spot for each turn I could make. I turned once and my skis, quite improbably went up over a mogul, down it, and around the next one. I turned again, and set my sites on the next turn. Again and again, I kept finding the next turn — and suddenly it dawned on me. Not only was I skiing the dreaded moguls, it was exactly like pursuing your dreams.

We want to stand at the top of our particular challenge, and scope out exactly how we’re going to make it work. But we can’t really know that until we’re deep in the middle of the work. The greater the challenge, the more you must rely on your gut wisdom to carry you through, telling you where to turn and what to do next. You cannot stand at the top of the run and figure it all out in advance. Life simply doesn’t work that way.

Lesson #4: Trust yourself — especially on the scary stuff.
I found my way down MacKenzie that morning with surprising ease. I fell a few times but somehow the automatic Voice of Resounding Shame didn’t resound quite as loudly. And I learned another amazing thing: if you’re skiing under control, when you fall on a steep slope, you can pop right back up again.

In the past, when I’d skied the Beginner and Intermediate terrain, getting up again was hell. I’d have to take off a ski, get on my hands and knees, and struggle upright again. But here, the angle of the mountain, or possibly my adrenaline,
literally pushed me right back to my feet.

Again, my mind went to life parallels, and I thought of the way we respond when we’re deep in pursuit of our dreams. The stronger our commitment, the faster we get right back to work after we hit a snag. We simply want to feel that magical flow again.

Lesson #5: The steeper the challenge, the faster you get back on your feet.
Whether you ski or not, challenges most certainly await in some corner of your life. I invite you to ski straight into them, and just keep looking for where to turn next. If you keep your course steady and methodical, and you don’t start racing out of control, even your falls will provide moments of quiet strength.
Happy trails.

It’s Time

December 22, 2011

What If the Body Is Actually Just a Mirror for How We Live Our Lives?

December 7, 2011

Wise words for healthy living and getting at the root of our health problems.

Finally Someone Saying Having It All IS Possible

December 7, 2011

“The most important career decision you make is who you choose to be your life partner.”

Watch the interview here. 

Really great interview of Sheryl Sandberg on how she and her husband split the house chores and responsibilities with their kids.  The interviewer asks her if her husband feels lame for being less successful than her.  She points out that when women are more successful than their husbands, their husbands are always asked if it’s okay because men are expected to excel professionally.  But, when it’s a man succeeding, no one ever asks the woman if she’s okay.   It’s a double standard, and we have to make it easier for men to make the same kinds of choices that women tend to be expected to make.

Finally, it’s nice to finally hear this from a powerful woman.  I think, deep down, most ambitious women expect this from their partners, but you never hear about it.  Most literature points to all of the barriers to women “having it all.”  Every article I read is all about the additional pressures on women in the household, having to juggle both professional and personal responsibilities.  Sandberg’s statement hits the nail on the head and helps pave the way for other women to do the same and act as role models for what is possible for women, without them feeling like they have to do everything.  She remarks that choosing the right partner is the most important decision one can make, not just for their life but for their careers.

I would agree, but we’re only just getting started in this discussion in the public discourse.

Courtney Martin on Today’s Feminism

December 6, 2011

“The mainstream media often paints my generation as ‘apathetic,’ but I think it’s much more accurate to say we are deeply overwhelmed.” –Courtney Martin

Reshaping the Case for Foreign Aid

December 5, 2011

Tell ‘Em Joe Sent Ya



What is Innovation, Really?

November 20, 2011
Totally a life-affirming article.  I’ve long questioned my own ideals of success… and of “failure,” but it’s hard.  Articles like this help assert that you aren’t, in fact, crazy. And that figuring out life isn’t just about picking a profession. It’s about picking a mission and designing your life around that mission very intention-full. (Yes, I just made up that word, but I think it’s more powerful than just ‘intentionally.’)  We have to keep growing our own self-efficacy in our own terms and make sure to include all aspects of ourselves, not just out professions.
When I was younger I was a poet, a creative writer, an athlete, a competitor, a photographer. I want to accomplish as much as the next type-A, completely driven, overwhelmingly ambitious person. I also desperately want to be a mother someday, a loyal partner, a dog owner, an author and who knows what else.  Maybe a trapeze acrobat? And, I want all of this, as part of my extraordinary (hopefully) life not as add-ons or seeming outliers in my professional equation. I hope our generation can help build a world around this conviction that helps unbury these passions that are oftentimes seen as “excess” or “separate” from “who we want to be when we grow up.”

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 3, 2010

What Are You Going to Do With That?

By William Deresiewicz

The essay below is adapted from a talk delivered to a freshman class at Stanford University in May.

The question my title poses, of course, is the one that is classically aimed at humanities majors. What practical value could there possibly be in studying literature or art or philosophy? So you must be wondering why I’m bothering to raise it here, at Stanford, this renowned citadel of science and technology. What doubt can there be that the world will offer you many opportunities to use your degree?

But that’s not the question I’m asking. By “do” I don’t mean a job, and by “that” I don’t mean your major. We are more than our jobs, and education is more than a major. Education is more than college, more even than the totality of your formal schooling, from kindergarten through graduate school. By “What are you going to do,” I mean, what kind of life are you going to lead? And by “that,” I mean everything in your training, formal and informal, that has brought you to be sitting here today, and everything you’re going to be doing for the rest of the time that you’re in school.

We should start by talking about how you did, in fact, get here. You got here by getting very good at a certain set of skills. Your parents pushed you to excel from the time you were very young. They sent you to good schools, where the encouragement of your teachers and the example of your peers helped push you even harder. Your natural aptitudes were nurtured so that, in addition to excelling in all your subjects, you developed a number of specific interests that you cultivated with particular vigor. You did extracurricular activities, went to afterschool programs, took private lessons. You spent summers doing advanced courses at a local college or attending skill-specific camps and workshops. You worked hard, you paid attention, and you tried your very best. And so you got very good at math, or piano, or lacrosse, or, indeed, several things at once.

Now there’s nothing wrong with mastering skills, with wanting to do your best and to be the best. What’s wrong is what the system leaves out: which is to say, everything else. I don’t mean that by choosing to excel in math, say, you are failing to develop your verbal abilities to their fullest extent, or that in addition to focusing on geology, you should also focus on political science, or that while you’re learning the piano, you should also be working on the flute. It is the nature of specialization, after all, to be specialized. No, the problem with specialization is that it narrows your attention to the point where all you know about and all you want to know about, and, indeed, all you can know about, is your specialty.

The problem with specialization is that it makes you into a specialist. It cuts you off, not only from everything else in the world, but also from everything else in yourself. And of course, as college freshmen, your specialization is only just beginning. In the journey toward the success that you all hope to achieve, you have completed, by getting into Stanford, only the first of many legs. Three more years of college, three or four or five years of law school or medical school or a Ph.D. program, then residencies or postdocs or years as a junior associate. In short, an ever-narrowing funnel of specialization. You go from being a political-science major to being a lawyer to being a corporate attorney to being a corporate attorney focusing on taxation issues in the consumer-products industry. You go from being a biochemistry major to being a doctor to being a cardiologist to being a cardiac surgeon who performs heart-valve replacements.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with being those things. It’s just that, as you get deeper and deeper into the funnel, into the tunnel, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember who you once were. You start to wonder what happened to that person who played piano and lacrosse and sat around with her friends having intense conversations about life and politics and all the things she was learning in her classes. The 19-year-old who could do so many things, and was interested in so many things, has become a 40-year-old who thinks about only one thing. That’s why older people are so boring. “Hey, my dad’s a smart guy, but all he talks about is money and livers.”

And there’s another problem. Maybe you never really wanted to be a cardiac surgeon in the first place. It just kind of happened. It’s easy, the way the system works, to simply go with the flow. I don’t mean the work is easy, but the choices are easy. Or rather, the choices sort of make themselves. You go to a place like Stanford because that’s what smart kids do. You go to medical school because it’s prestigious. You specialize in cardiology because it’s lucrative. You do the things that reap the rewards, that make your parents proud, and your teachers pleased, and your friends impressed. From the time you started high school and maybe even junior high, your whole goal was to get into the best college you could, and so now you naturally think about your life in terms of “getting into” whatever’s next. “Getting into” is validation; “getting into” is victory. Stanford, then Johns Hopkins medical school, then a residency at the University of San Francisco, and so forth. Or Michigan Law School, or Goldman Sachs, or Mc­Kinsey, or whatever. You take it one step at a time, and the next step always seems to be inevitable.

Or maybe you did always want to be a cardiac surgeon. You dreamed about it from the time you were 10 years old, even though you had no idea what it really meant, and you stayed on course for the entire time you were in school. You refused to be enticed from your path by that great experience you had in AP history, or that trip you took to Costa Rica the summer after your junior year in college, or that terrific feeling you got taking care of kids when you did your rotation in pediatrics during your fourth year in medical school.

But either way, either because you went with the flow or because you set your course very early, you wake up one day, maybe 20 years later, and you wonder what happened: how you got there, what it all means. Not what it means in the “big picture,” whatever that is, but what it means to you. Why you’re doing it, what it’s all for. It sounds like a cliché, this “waking up one day,” but it’s called having a midlife crisis, and it happens to people all the time.

There is an alternative, however, and it may be one that hasn’t occurred to you. Let me try to explain it by telling you a story about one of your peers, and the alternative that hadn’t occurred to her. A couple of years ago, I participated in a panel discussion at Harvard that dealt with some of these same matters, and afterward I was contacted by one of the students who had come to the event, a young woman who was writing her senior thesis about Harvard itself, how it instills in its students what she called self-efficacy, the sense that you can do anything you want. Self-efficacy, or, in more familiar terms, self-esteem. There are some kids, she said, who get an A on a test and say, “I got it because it was easy.” And there are other kids, the kind with self-efficacy or self-esteem, who get an A on a test and say, “I got it because I’m smart.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with thinking that you got an A because you’re smart. But what that Harvard student didn’t realize—and it was really quite a shock to her when I suggested it—is that there is a third alternative. True self-esteem, I proposed, means not caring whether you get an A in the first place. True self-esteem means recognizing, despite everything that your upbringing has trained you to believe about yourself, that the grades you get—and the awards, and the test scores, and the trophies, and the acceptance letters—are not what defines who you are.

She also claimed, this young woman, that Harvard students take their sense of self-efficacy out into the world and become, as she put it, “innovative.” But when I asked her what she meant by innovative, the only example she could come up with was “being CEO of a Fortune 500.” That’s not innovative, I told her, that’s just successful, and successful according to a very narrow definition of success. True innovation means using your imagination, exercising the capacity to envision new possibilities.

But I’m not here to talk about technological innovation, I’m here to talk about a different kind. It’s not about inventing a new machine or a new drug. It’s about inventing your own life. Not following a path, but making your own path. The kind of imagination I’m talking about is moral imagination. “Moral” meaning not right or wrong, but having to do with making choices. Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new ways to live your life.

It means not just going with the flow. It means not just “getting into” whatever school or program comes next. It means figuring out what you want for yourself, not what your parents want, or your peers want, or your school wants, or your society wants. Originating your own values. Thinking your way toward your own definition of success. Not simply accepting the life that you’ve been handed. Not simply accepting the choices you’ve been handed. When you walk into Starbucks, you’re offered a choice among a latte and a macchiato and an espresso and a few other things, but you can also make another choice. You can turn around and walk out. When you walk into college, you are offered a choice among law and medicine and investment banking and consulting and a few other things, but again, you can also do something else, something that no one has thought of before.

Let me give you another counterexample. I wrote an essay a couple of years ago that touched on some of these same points. I said, among other things, that kids at places like Yale or Stanford tend to play it safe and go for the conventional rewards. And one of the most common criticisms I got went like this: What about Teach for America? Lots of kids from elite colleges go and do TFA after they graduate, so therefore I was wrong. TFA, TFA—I heard that over and over again. And Teach for America is undoubtedly a very good thing. But to cite TFA in response to my argument is precisely to miss the point, and to miss it in a way that actually confirms what I’m saying. The problem with TFA—or rather, the problem with the way that TFA has become incorporated into the system—is that it’s just become another thing to get into.

In terms of its content, Teach for America is completely different from Goldman Sachs or McKinsey or Harvard Medical School or Berkeley Law, but in terms of its place within the structure of elite expectations, of elite choices, it is exactly the same. It’s prestigious, it’s hard to get into, it’s something that you and your parents can brag about, it looks good on your résumé, and most important, it represents a clearly marked path. You don’t have to make it up yourself, you don’t have to do anything but apply and do the work­—just like college or law school or McKinsey or whatever. It’s the Stanford or Harvard of social engagement. It’s another hurdle, another badge. It requires aptitude and diligence, but it does not require a single ounce of moral imagination.

Moral imagination is hard, and it’s hard in a completely different way than the hard things you’re used to doing. And not only that, it’s not enough. If you’re going to invent your own life, if you’re going to be truly autonomous, you also need courage: moral courage. The courage to act on your values in the face of what everyone’s going to say and do to try to make you change your mind. Because they’re not going to like it. Morally courageous individuals tend to make the people around them very uncomfortable. They don’t fit in with everybody else’s ideas about the way the world is supposed to work, and still worse, they make them feel insecure about the choices that they themselves have made—or failed to make. People don’t mind being in prison as long as no one else is free. But stage a jailbreak, and everybody else freaks out.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus famously say, about growing up in Ireland in the late 19th century, “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

Today there are other nets. One of those nets is a term that I’ve heard again and again as I’ve talked with students about these things. That term is “self-indulgent.” “Isn’t it self-indulgent to try to live the life of the mind when there are so many other things I could be doing with my degree?” “Wouldn’t it be self-indulgent to pursue painting after I graduate instead of getting a real job?”

These are the kinds of questions that young people find themselves being asked today if they even think about doing something a little bit different. Even worse, the kinds of questions they are made to feel compelled to ask themselves. Many students have spoken to me, as they navigated their senior years, about the pressure they felt from their peers—from their peers—to justify a creative or intellectual life. You’re made to feel like you’re crazy: crazy to forsake the sure thing, crazy to think it could work, crazy to imagine that you even have a right to try.

Think of what we’ve come to. It is one of the great testaments to the intellectual—and moral, and spiritual—poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel like they’re being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity. You are all told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you’re being “self-indulgent” if you actually want to get an education. Or even worse, give yourself one. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not OK to play music, or write essays, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is OK to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it’s not selfish at all.

Do you see how absurd this is? But these are the nets that are flung at you, and this is what I mean by the need for courage. And it’s a never-ending proc­ess. At that Harvard event two years ago, one person said, about my assertion that college students needed to keep rethinking the decisions they’ve made about their lives, “We already made our decisions, back in middle school, when we decided to be the kind of high achievers who get into Harvard.” And I thought, who wants to live with the decisions that they made when they were 12? Let me put that another way. Who wants to let a 12-year-old decide what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives? Or a 19-year-old, for that matter?

All you can decide is what you think now, and you need to be prepared to keep making revisions. Because let me be clear. I’m not trying to persuade you all to become writers or musicians. Being a doctor or a lawyer, a scientist or an engineer or an economist—these are all valid and admirable choices. All I’m saying is that you need to think about it, and think about it hard. All I’m asking is that you make your choices for the right reasons. All I’m urging is that you recognize and embrace your moral freedom.

And most of all, don’t play it safe. Resist the seductions of the cowardly values our society has come to prize so highly: comfort, convenience, security, predictability, control. These, too, are nets. Above all, resist the fear of failure. Yes, you will make mistakes. But they will be your mistakes, not someone else’s. And you will survive them, and you will know yourself better for having made them, and you will be a fuller and a stronger person.

It’s been said—and I’m not sure I agree with this, but it’s an idea that’s worth taking seriously—that you guys belong to a “postemotional” generation. That you prefer to avoid messy and turbulent and powerful feelings. But I say, don’t shy away from the challenging parts of yourself. Don’t deny the desires and curiosities, the doubts and dissatisfactions, the joy and the darkness, that might knock you off the path that you have set for yourself. College is just beginning for you, adulthood is just beginning. Open yourself to the possibilities they represent. The world is much larger than you can imagine right now. Which means, you are much larger than you can imagine.

William Deresiewicz is a contributing writer for The Nation and a contributing editor at The New Republic. His next book, A Jane Austen Education, will be published next year by Penguin Press.