The Daily Cal asked professors via email about their last recommendations for seniors. This is what they suggested.
Daily Cal: What’s the biggest lie new graduates are told (and seem to believe)?
Edward Frenkel, UC Berkeley math professor: “After graduation, the world at large will welcome you, recognize your talents, and give you the opportunity to succeed.” That’s a lie. You have to know what you want and you have to fight for it. That’s how you become successful.
Abigail De Kosnik, UC Berkeley associate professor of theater, dance and performance studies: That you must be on a “track” right away, like the second after you graduate you absolutely must know what graduate degree you’re going to get, what career path you’re going to be on, when you’re going to achieve which professional goal. First of all, you barely know what you’ll be good at, what you’ll love, what a career path even is until you’ve gotten some experience under your belt. I suggest going with your gut, doing something you think you’ll like for at least two years, seeing how the working world works, and asking yourself where you think you can do the world and yourself the most good, career-wise, after a couple of years of being a full-time employee. Think of it as a “starter job.” You’re not committing for life to your starter job (not necessarily, anyway).
Michael Mascuch, UC Berkeley associate professor of rhetoric: It’s hard to know where to begin! “The truth will set you free”? (Which, by the way, comes from the Christian Bible.) Here at Berkeley we are, in a sense, a community of liars engaged in original thinking. In his essay on metaphor, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” the rhetorician Friedrich Nietzsche reminds us that “every concept originates though our equating what is unequal.” Therefore, “Truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.” That’s no lie, you can look it up.
Alan Karras, UC Berkeley senior lecturer of international and area studies: That hard work and diligence always lead to changing the world in our preferred way. The corollary to this is that we live in a meritocracy. We don’t live in a meritocracy and sometimes, perhaps often, hard work and diligence get ignored.
DC: When you finished college, did you expect you would get where you are now?
Frenkel: I was not accepted to Moscow University because of anti-Semitic policies that were in place in the Soviet Union when I was growing up. I ended up at a technical school in Moscow and had trouble securing a job upon graduation. My prospects looked very bleak… But if you have a dream and work hard on making it reality, nothing can stop you.
De Kosnik: Yes and No. I was so burned out after racing to complete a B.A. and an M.A. in four years (so I wouldn’t have to pay for an extra fifth or sixth year at my undergraduate institution), that I just couldn’t bring myself to go straight to a Ph.D. program and get on the academic track right after graduating. I took a “starter job” at a Palo Alto start-up that ended up being a success and allowed my career to progress with that company, which was awesome. But I knew all along the way that I wanted to get my Ph.D. one day, and after eight years in management positions, I am so glad that I went to grad school, and tremendously grateful to have ended up as a faculty member of such a renowned university as Cal. So I couldn’t have expected to be here now, but I always knew I wanted it.
Mascuch: Yes and no: evidently I had ambitions, but I could hardly admit them to myself. I’m pretty sure that I wanted to be at Berkeley ever since I first visited the campus on a fifth grade field trip (to the seismological lab). This place is beautiful; it was love at first sight. At my 30th high school reunion recently I was told by several people that back in the day I went around saying that I intended to be a professor at Berkeley, yet I have no such memory. But for college I applied only to Berkeley and Yale, which was my back-up. I was accepted at Berkeley; Yale turned me down–somehow they knew. After majoring in English I went to graduate school in the UK to read History, reckoning obscurely that by going as far away from Berkeley as I could manage, I would improve my chances of returning. Luck vindicated this crazy reason: my first job after my PhD was as a lecturer teaching composition in the Department of Rhetoric here — I hadn’t heard of the department but one of my undergraduate professors with whom I stayed in touch suggested that I apply. A year later a tenure-track position was advertised. The timing was pure luck. I think it helped that in spite of my imagined reticence, I made my ambitions known to others at every step.
Karras: Absolutely not. To be honest, I had very little sense of what to expect. This made it easier to experiment, to succeed, and to fail. It made it easier to take risks and to grow. For me, it paid off, though the route was long and had some unanticipated adventures—not all of them good, or even smart.
DC: What do you think students who don’t have any idea of what their next step is should do to figure it out?
Frenkel: You need to figure out what it is that you love because whatever you do in life, you have to love it. Everything else follows from that. It sounds trite, but it’s true.
De Kosnik: Work! Working is never bad unless you’re in an abusive situation under a horrible boss, or something like that. Working at a full-time job means you’re getting some experience, some skills — experience and skills for living your life, if nothing else! Choose anything that has some basic appeal to you. Work at a florist’s shop, work as someone’s administrative assistant, work at a real estate company, as long as there is something about the job itself and the place of employment that seems interesting and makes you think you might like it. If you’re right and you like some parts of it, ask yourself, What do I like here? Managing people, training them? Or working with customers and clients? Or organizing stuff and setting up systems? What do I like about this business/industry/field? The beauty of the flowers? The service this company provides? You’ll learn what you love, what you like, what you can tolerate, and what you absolutely cannot tolerate. You’ll learn what you’re great at, what you can figure out, and what you totally suck at. That will be invaluable to know. What you absolutely should not do is what someone else thinks you should do. You may not know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life yet, but you can figure out what you feel like you would be interested in doing, what you think you’d be pretty good at doing, right now.
Mascuch: Allow yourself to do what you want to do, not what others tell you to do. If you really enjoy what you are doing, the next steps will be obvious.
Karras: Talk to people from a wide variety of places about what your next steps ought to be. Know something about the people to whom you are talking and be able to engage them in interesting conversations. Listen to the answers you get, which will probably contradict each other, but provide a range of pathways and options. Mull these options over—pick one or do something completely different. Travel is an eye-opener, so if you can afford it, take some time off and travel. If you have to pay bills, find a job that will let you pay the bills, even a not great job (which will probably motivate you to find a better one) and then travel. Travel does not always have to involve distance. You can also travel outside your circle of like-minded people.
DC: What do you wish someone had told you when you were graduating?
Frenkel: Don’t be afraid to be different, and don’t pay too much attention to what other people say about you. Don’t expect them to get what you are trying to do. Be yourself. Ask your close friends and family for advice, but above all — follow your heart.
De Kosnik: All the “mistakes” are worth it. They’re not even mistakes! As long as you’re always asking, ‘What am I supposed to be learning here, about myself, this situation, or life/the world?,’ you’re doing what you should be doing. You can handle rough times. You can survive heartbreak, professional disappointment, periods of burnout, terrible managers, horrible work tasks. As long as you learn from them, build your skills, build your mental and emotional strength, you’re doing great! (But also: don’t be satisfied with a terrible deal; it’s important to work hard to get yourself out of bad scenarios in a constructive way, without burning every bridge you ever built in the process.)
Mascuch: There’s no point in my wishing that anybody had told me anything because whatever they might have said, I would not have heard. At age 22, nobody could tell me a thing! I had to find it all out for myself. So, to rephrase the question slightly, I wish that I had then told myself: Slow down! There’s no rush!
Karras: Someone—anyone—should have alerted me to the idea that no matter how much planning one does, there is such a thing as serendipity. And that being able to embrace the unexpected and the ambiguous often leads to far better outcomes and opportunities than all the planning in the world.
DC: What should we be reading right now?
Frenkel: Richard Feynman’s “Cargo Cult” commencement addresses at Caltech, which he gave 40 years ago, still reads fresh today. His parting words to the graduates: “I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.”
De Kosnik: To be honest, I spent my 20s reading business books. This is partly because my company would reimburse me for business books but not any other kind of reading. Of course I read a lot of literature and critical theory, too – that was my fun reading. But for work reading, I tore through whole shelves of books on organizational management, people management/development/motivation, accounting, time management, product innovation and developing new products for market, crisis management. Frankly, that stuff has served me so incredibly well in life. I recommend it. If you’re going anywhere near any kind of job that involves time, money, sales, operations, marketing, service, management, products, or people — which is every job in the whole entire world — I would recommend designing yourself a little part-time MBA course, consisting of reading what all the bestselling business books have to say. Now, be prepared: a lot of those books are terribly written and they all have this super bombastic, “Five Easy Steps to Success” kind of tone and structure, but often you can read through that to the actual knowledge there. Oh, and don’t read anything by people that have never actually managed people or run businesses. Don’t read books by consultants (unless they really seem incredible, amazing, truly full of real wisdom). Read books by CEOs, COOs, and managers that walked the walk. And then when you travel, or on weekends, read Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Nabokov’s Lolita. Those were all books I also read in my twenties that will stay with me forever. Along with Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Mascuch: I recommend anything by George Saunders. I respect the curiosity motivating this question, but the pedant in me insists that anyone with the liberal arts education Berkeley provides does not need to be told what to read.
Karras: THE answer of the moment is Thomas Piketty’s, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t guarantee it lives up to the hype. But the act of reading it will allow you to have conversations with people who have read it, or who know about it, and who have opinions on it (whether or not they have read it). Those conversations will be interesting and could lead you in an otherwise unanticipated direction. I’d also recommend Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which provides a great deal of insight into what is both good and bad in human beings. Classics are classics for a reason.
Sarah Burns was the Daily Cal’s 2013-2014 editor in chief and president.