To Be At Once Serious and Self-Mocking

Say you’re an ambitious person. You need to at once take seriously your aspiration for greatness and impact while also humbly laughing at the odds that your time on this planet will be very insignificant indeed. The smallest of dots on the map of human history, in fact. The task of reconciling these two opposing ideas I find a central struggle of the ambitious go-getter: without seriousness and without big dreams you will not fulfill your potential, without the broader perspective your seriousness becomes unbearable and you alienate others.

I meet young entrepreneurs all the time struggling with this. I’ve met teenagers convinced that intensity, relentless goal setting, and workaholism will lead them to the promised land. They have bet me with a stone-cold face that they will be president of the United States or the next Bill Gates. Part of me says, you go brother! But at times they display this ambition so nakedly that they turn me (and others) off. Their seriousness is suffocating. As any entrepreneur knows, you can’t do it alone — you gotta enlist the support and loyalty of others — so ignoring how you’re perceived is stupid. Likability matters.

I also meet student journalists searching for this middle ground. (I did when I ran my high school newspaper.)

The challenge of being a student journalist is that you want to stay away from well-covered national or international issues and focus on your niche (campus life), and you want to do so with a certain respectable seriousness as you’re trying to accumulate real journalistic experience. The problem is if you apply more than a modicum of seriousness to most campus issues the exercise goes from amusing to absurd pretty quickly. The trivial (how much is the party security budget? is vegetarian food served in the cafeteria?) gets transformed into matters of worldly importance. So you want to professionally tackle the reporting task at hand while also injecting your work with a healthy dose of awareness about the likely triviality of the entire enterprise. Which is why, in my view, the best student publications tend to be heavy on humor and satire and wit.

Bottom Line: Be serious about your brief time on the planet. Dream big. But also be self-mocking enough to dilute your earnestness to a level that makes you tolerable.


Additional Note on Journalism: Since we’re on the topic. Cynicism is a cheap path to seriousness. I think this explains the negativity underlying most student journalism, a conviction that things at school are always getting worse not better and that exposing this decline somehow upholds a forsaken ideal as opposed to just feeding a throbbing self-obsession. Any student publication I’ve been a part of or observed thinks this way. Though maybe this tendency is built into journalism in general under the banner of keeping authorities accountable, not just student journalism…

Hat tip: Thanks Larissa MacFarquhar for inspiring the last sentence of the Bottom Line.

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