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I’d like to begin with a poem.
Remember the first day of freshman year
when you were nothing but a name and a dot on the map at the front of the hall?
Remember when our parents dropped us off in those rooms too small for all of our expectations
let alone our naivety?
Remember when you told me that you weren’t sure but you were pretty sure
that you were gonna declare a double major in Philosophy and English
because you cried the first time you read The Perks of Being a Wallflower
and we both share a sacred and unquenchable lust for bad science fiction?
Remember when we both thought we were going to find ourselves, changed the world
and all of the other slogans we memorized from the view books,
the ones that we stitched to our throats when they asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up?
So when you changed your major to econ,
so when you pledged that fraternity,
so when you exchanged t-shirt for j-crews,
so when you accepted that job offer at an investment bank because
you swore you were just going to dismantle the system from within because
you were just different from the rest of them.
I wondered at what point we become the tucked in shirt,
the 9 to 5 we grew up fearing.
You, whose love of learning far surpassed the stickers your teachers adorned your homework with
You, who could not fall asleep that night in debate camp when you read Marx for the first time
because the world just finally made sense again
You, whose creativity refused to be disciplined
What happened to you?
You, who sacrificed dream for diploma, revolution for resume
and that factory which tries to produce profit out of every potential prophet
where change falls from hearts into pockets
won’t really teach you how to stop it
because we gotta make that endowment rocket.
Small liberal arts college degree becomes a fancy way of saying
“can spend 8 hours designing PowerPoint slides,”
or “will sacrifice all promises for promotion,”
or “can seduce potential business clients by quoting classic literature I read in college.”
So what if the best way to dominate a world is to pretend that you are saving it?
So what if this education was really about teaching us how to become so ignorant that we forgot how to think for ourselves?
You, the twenty something year old idealist gone corporate
in your first suit throwing theory at a wall that will swallow you up and spit you back out on the street,
discharged, like the cold hard cash of an ATM machine.
Your heartbeat reduced to a series of transactions.
I almost thought that when you hugged me goodbye you would ask me for a receipt,
proof of purchase for a friendship you only consumed when it made cents for your career trajectory.
I’m sorry I did not make the cut for the walking resume you mistake as a body,
but I still want to believe in you,
because I want to believe in the power of a creativity undisciplined:
the time we saw her smile, saw our first eclipse, read our first book,
the joy and chaos of it all.
So what if it’s just chaos?
The time and space before friendship got postponed by deadlines,
before future was segregated into interviews and internships.
So what if we are really nothing,
like the dot on the map from freshman year?
And what if that is beautiful?
What if we both cried when our parents left us but we did not tell each other?
What if I am crying that you are leaving me but I will not tell you
because I no longer have the market value to make you listen
that I think you are worth more than any salary increase that they will give you,
that I do not think that your heartbeat can be transcribed on a spreadsheet of numbers,
that I am broke but not broken.
Wondering what you could’ve been before you sold out.
Thank you. Thank you.
In the spirit…in the spirit of full disclosure, I am here to recruit you.
This is not a recruitment interview like the ones your career centers have prepared you for.
I do not care where you went to school nor what you majored in.
These things are no longer relevant in a world
where we are losing some of our most creative and dynamic minds to the epidemic of success.
This is not the crisis that they will tell you about on the news,
that the economy is tanking, the world is at war.
This is something far different.
Too many things are working too well.
The government isn’t broken. It’s working.
Our universities are not broken. They are perfect.
Our generation is not apathetic. It is flourishing.
This means that you are not actually an innovator, a leader,
an exceptional student or all of the other medals they have placed around your neck.
These are merely accomplishments you’ve been taught your entire life that define yourself worth.
Should you desire to be successful you will not actually bring human rights for all,
eliminate poverty and global warming and fix Congress.
Should you go in with these mindsets chances are you will fail in the same ways all the generations before you have failed.
The truth is the key to changing the world is
finding a way to fail to live up to its expectation.
Hi. My name is Alov Vaid-Menon,
and you could call me a fashionista, activist, general provocateur,
but I prefer to call myself a professional failure.
Someone who, at least my mom reminds me, was destined for all of the riches of the world,
but somehow messed up on the way.
You see, I grew up in a comfortable middle class Indian family,
where the expectation was that I grow up and become some fancy schmancy academic.
With two PhD parents, the bar was always set high.
I remember getting chastised for talking on the phone rather than reading the New York Times.
I soon learned that the secret to legitimacy was finding a scholar who had written about something.
This is how I discovered Critical Youtube Studies. It’s real.
It wasn’t so much that my parents pressured me to succeed;
it was more of a quite expectation.
You see, this was part of our immigration story.
To move to this country and not really challenge any of its rules,
but rather beat everyone else at their own game,
which goes to say that from an early age, it seemed like success was the only way to justify my parents’ journey across the ocean.
But when I got into Stanford, my parents weren’t really that excited for me.
It was something more, well, expected.
It was only when I got to university that I began to recognize how violent success can actually be.
I remember the day vividly.
It was our opening convocation and the keynote speaker said
that we were all the future leaders of the world
before we had actually done anything.
And I remember thinking the way that we were discussing success was actually less about what our impact was
and more about our shared prestige.
In the beginning, all of my classmates had some brilliant ideas of what it was going to take to fix the world’s problems,
but over time their methods became, shall we say, less specific.
We were expected to congratulate the public servant
who accepted a job offer at a corporation that left hundreds of thousands of people starving.
We were expected to applaud for a keynote speaker and not mentioned his support for racist policies.
Low and behold my classmates continued to flock to all these talks by “success stories,”
not necessarily because of what they had done,
but rather because of this elusive concept of who they were.
Success has never actually been about fixing problems;
it’s been about perpetuating them.
Ask yourself this:
What happened to the thousands of people who were denied admission to the university?
What about the hundreds of people who did not get the job that you were offered?
How many people did it take to suffer in order for you to thrive?
Do you even care?
Success is about self-promotion,
not putting change into motion.
We’re part of a generation whose ancestors expect us to fix all the problems we inherited,
but ironically, we are destined to fail in the same ways as them,
because we’re using the same tactics.
Success just isn’t gonna cut it anymore.
Ask yourself this:
If all of the best universities really produced the most successful leaders then
why do we still live in a world of corruption?
If all the success stories were really successful then
why do we still live in a violently unequal world?
I think it’s time we broke up with success,
or at least how we’ve currently defined it.
Okay, I get it. This is, like, super awkward.
Success feels good and I’m asking you to feel bad about it.
It’s like what would it have felt like in second grade after you wrote your first love poem
and your teacher gave it back and said,
“You failed.”
It would be pretty awkward.
I understand. I didn’t always think this way.
It took me failing, and recognizing how beautiful that was, to really understand.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to organize with the transgender movement in South Africa.
I was there to research the disconnect between progressive legislation and the experiences of violence on the ground.
Naturally being the Type A model minority I was,
I obtained the best research grants, got critical and cutting edge interviews
and genuinely felt like I had come up with a theory to fix the violence.
I returned to the US to continue to write my thesis,
but in the process I got an email from one of my colleagues
that one of my research participants had died.
Her name was Cym.
I had just read her interview the day before.
What is the point of a thesis written in a language
inaccessible by the very people it’s about?
What is the point of a thesis and a researcher who’s familiar with the names of theories
but not actually the names of her own neighbors?
Who is invited to speak about a movement
and who must die for it?
I was so concerned with being a successful researcher
that I glossed over the parts of the work that were the most important,
the hard and invisible parts of building trust, empathy and solidarity.
I shared an office with Cym for 2 months
and I cannot tell you what her favorite color was,
where she lived
and what made her weep for joy.
The only parts of her that were important were the parts of her that fit into my own analysis.
Success is a violent and manipulative process.
The thesis committee didn’t care about my ability to create research that was actually relevant to local organizers,
let alone my ability to end violence in south Africa.
If anything, my research would have perpetuated violence
so that future generations of researchers can come and study it for their own job promotion.
Let’s call that a success story.
So I deleted Cym’s interview.
I changed my topic and I started thinking.
Even though I failed at becoming an academic, I had succeeded in becoming a better human being!
Failure, in it’s own way, is a different form of success.
Which means that every single problem in the world can actually be reconsidered as a successful implementation of an idea.
The persistence of racially segregated schools reveals the success of institutionalized racism.
The crisis of student debt indicates the success of a foolish logic that we should have to pay for educations
rather than be entitled to them.
The persistence of violence against queer people is indicative of a clout, of a colour, of a currency of intolerance.
These issues are not problems; they are success stories; they are victories.
This means the system is not broken; it is working.
It is working so well that it has taught our entire lives that it is broken,
so that we can spend most of our energies trying to improve it rather than actually building alternatives.
Success is actually about maintaining the status quo.
Few of us have thought about who actually determines the markers of success,
let alone challenge them.
Because we have allowed the crisis of success to go unregulated,
we find ourselves in a peculiarly awkward position,
celebrating every new success story while by enlarge the world continues to get
more unequal, more unhealthy, and more unbearable for the majority of people.
Those of us interested in intervening in these problems can no longer revert to success.
We need a new way to understand and relate to our work,
a way that’s less selfish and superficial.
And to most people, this method might be thought of as failing,
and to some degree, I think that they’re right.
We are failing to accept a world of injustice.
We are failing to buy into the myth of progress.
We are failing to leave one another behind.
So, I encourage you to fail more.
Think about how they’ve stolen your passion from you
and graph it into a career trajectory oriented toward success and not necessarily substance.
Think about what that success will actually realize for people beyond yourself.
And what I hope you will find is that by failing, a whole new world of possibilities will open up for you.
Like the time I failed and remembered how to love strangers that
in our own drive to succeed we neglect the millions of potentials for change around us.
This is often the most transformative and exciting work,
work like building relationships with neighbors, cooking, making art and movement
and all of the other millions of skills that will never have a place on your resume.
This is what I’m asking you to do.
Think about the parts of your day that you do not tell people,
the gray areas that do not make into your interviews or resumes.
This is the most in part of your identity.
Major in that feeling.
Recently, I have been trying to reconsider all of parts of my life I used to think were insignificant
and find beauty in them.
These days, the most important work I do as an activist is actually not that glamorous.
It’s about entering data and spreadsheets,
organizing foods for meetings,
listening to people’s stories and calling my mom every single night.
And these things are not going to change policy.
Give me a diploma or an award, but I think they’re doing the slow work of tearing of the fabric of our culture,
and this, this is what I think is going to take to change the world.
It’s not gonna happen if we keep on trying to be successful and fighting our way to the top.
It’s gonna happen when instead we reach our arms out to one another,
clinging on desperately and ferociously trying to remember
a type of interconnectivity that our schools, our careers and our own anxieties are trying their best to eradicate.
Remembering that we are actually nothing
and how beautiful that is,
because that means they do not know what to expect from us next.
I would like to close with a poem to honor Cym and all of the other casualties of our success stories.
My summer in cape town or I’m sorry for using you.
They will ask you whether your research project can inflict significant harm
and you will respond “minor discomfort” to expedite the review process.
Her name is Cym,
and on Mondays she asks you what you did over the weekend.
You do not tell her.
You are guilty of the conversion rate,
how you can afford a club, a skin, a language that she never will.
She wants to know what it’s like to live in America,
if you have a boyfriend there who will buy you dinner sometimes.
In your field preparation class, they will teach you the importance of obtaining consent.
Cym cannot sign your forms.
So instead she communicates with the earnest of hazel eyes,
Smiles, tells you how she used to let men and heroine inside of her
and sometimes couldn’t tell the difference.
Laughs, tells you how they used to beat her in men’s prisons
In your international field preparation class, they will teach you not to get involved in your subjects’ personal lives.
Your palms are sweaty.
Do not let them smear the ink as she keeps smiling and encourages you to ask more questions.
An aneurysm is a blood-filled bulge in the wall of a blood vessel.
When the amount of pressure increases,
there’s a significant risk in rupture, often resulting in death.
A researcher is an ambitious distraction at the back of the room.
With the amount of information increases, there’s a significant risk in Epiphany,
often resulting in a published paper.
She will die 9 months after your interview,
and you can still remember the scent of her smile.
One. Dear Cym, in America I am learning how to think that I am better than you.
In fact, I am majoring in you.
Don’t worry, they don’t use your name.
Keep it confidential.
Two. I am making a new theory out of your body.
Academics work like Johns sometimes.
Don’t worry, they will pay me to use you.
I promise I will cut you some of the profit in my acknowledgement.
Three. My thesis will be in English.
In a language that you learned watching reruns of Friends.
Cym, wish we could’ve been friends. Just gotta keep it pro, pro, professional.
I promise, I will publish my thesis on the whitest paper I can find.
So that they will see the black in your words.
Four. I will bury you in a library.
I hope you will find peace there, that haunted house of quotations
that hang on the shelves like skeletons.
Listen to the recorded transcripts on repeat.
And cry, because we’re too afraid to let people inside of us in fear of imploding.
And cry, because you have a story of a dead woman
nested at the back of your throat
and you do not deserve it.
Dear Cym, what I really meant to ask you was,
what theory did you use to stay warm at night?
Is, can you teach me?
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【TEDx】We are nothing (and that is beautiful): Alok Vaid-Menon at TEDxMiddlebury

33013 Folder Collection
Go Tutor published on January 2, 2015
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