long . lines and ripples

Games of Success

Inside of an old paperback that I hadn’t opened for a while–for more than a decade, I’d guess–I found a long-expired admissions letter to graduate school. It was a good offer for me, one that I must have been excited about at the time. So why did it end up in another book on my shelf, forgotten? My guess is that the school was on my mind at the time, and I kept the letter close by to reread it. I did not go to this graduate program, but the option weighed on me enough that the letter served as a reminder of the impending decision. Once it was made, the letter lost its power: it became just another piece of paper, forgotten inside the book I happened to be reading when I put it back on my shelf.

Rereading this admissions letter the other day, in 2020, the most striking thing about it was is its grand–almost grandiose–optimism: so many possibilities, so much praise the school gives to itself, so many ideals the school holds, and such wonderful admitted students. Do admissions offices still write letters like this? Now on the other side of another graduate school, steeped in the vagaries of the “real” world (I don’t like this phrase, but it makes a recognizable distinction), does it make me cynical to see this letter as a performance? It’s probably healthy that I am less impressed with both sender and recipient than I was then.

Now school looks like another game of success. It certifies something about you, on terms that the school and its peers more or less define, and that some slice of the rest of the world assents to. Sometimes a school has the power to give you more generally recognizable markers of success: to set you up with an impressive starting salary, and to put you on a career track with a nice progression–or at least to provide you with a name brand education to prop up your professional resume.

Head of Apollo
Apollo, god of knowledge and education. Source: Smithsonian, Creative Commons License
Head of Athena
Athena, goddess of wisdom. Source: Smithsonian, Creative Commons License

But at some point, all tracks that begin with education go off-track. Educational prestige confers reputational stability against an unpredictable future that holds the possibility of failure, even embarrassment. School makes you look good, but you can’t go back to even the best school once things don’t look so good, or so clear, anymore. School is the real world, because it is one of the first games of success that many people play. But once you leave, you have to pick another game, and you had better recognize that the rules have changed.