For nostalgia purposes, I walked across a university campus last week on the opening day of classes. I am neither teaching nor attending classes this fall, so I viewed the scene as an outsider.
On the mall was an organizational fair with dozens of booths. Phi Beta Gappa. Snowboarders Club. Student newspaper. Rugby team. Women in Communication. Lutheran Student Movement. Campus Crusade. Muslim Student Association.
Pro-choice. Pro-life. Students for Peace. Campus Democrats. Campus Republicans. Accounting Club, Advertising Club, Climbing Club, Students against Cancer.
I recall being told in college that the biggest predictor of success after graduation was not the grades you earned in college, but the extent to which you participated in extra-curricular organizations.
I always resented that. I preferred getting good grades to attending stupid meetings of some club where the biggest thing decided was who was going to call Dominoes to see if they would donate pizza for the fund-raiser. How in the world would that prepare one for success after graduation?
Very well, it turns out. Unfortunately, success in the world today is much more about navigating the crazy inefficiency of big, stupid organizations like corporations and governmental agencies than it is about studying and understanding the facts.
If you are dull enough to sit through a monthly advertising club meeting without gagging, you probably will have no problem in a corporate board room. If you are good-natured and vain enough to be elected president of the Astronomy Society, you are probably good district sales manager material.
So, I thought as I walked through the campus organizational fair, that's why I could never hold a job. I didn't join enough clubs in college. I was too busy trying to get good grades.
I did other things wrong, too. For example, I didn't join a fraternity. I never even attended a single fraternity party. I thought frats were silly. All they did were dumb things like jump on trampolines for 24 hours to raise money for a cause, or build snow sculptures, or party, or play volleyball. What a waste of time.
Turns out, if you want to be president of the United States, that's just what you have to do: Join a frat, party it up, hold meetings with secret codes and make your new members drink buttermilk out of the toilet. It's all more important than getting good grades. The evidence is in, and has been for a long time.
Nixon was an outstanding student, but was a disaster as a president. Kennedy partied hard in college, but everybody seems to like him now. Jimmy Carter graduated near the top of his class at Annapolis, but his presidency was a failure. Gerald Ford joined a frat, played football and drank beer at Michigan, and everybody thinks he was wonderful.
I had hoped college was where I could become famous after the humiliations of high school. Finally, the jocks wouldn't get all the attention. Finally, my bookishness would be rewarded. I would be the star student of the dorm!
Wrong. While I read my history assignments, the guys all gathered in the dorm room next door to drink beer and smoke funny-smelling little roll-your-own cigarettes. They barely graduated with Cs and Ds, but oh did they have fun.
And what did the partiers do with their lives? Did all that fun finally catch up with them? Do they now languish on skid row? Live under a bridge? Did they die by age 30?
Nope. They are all now successful. One's a district sales manager. Another edits a popular magazine. Another is a professor. They spent college honing the skills that matter: Meeting people. Schmoozing. Working with groups.
Meanwhile, I holed up in my dorm room and read my assignments under the assumption that studying would get me somewhere.
It did, I guess. I got good grades. I know a lot about the French Revolution. I can tell you all about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I am familiar with the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
But because I still prefer sitting in my room and reading to joining a club or partying with the guys, I better give up on the idea of becoming president.
Turns out to become president, you have to drink buttermilk out of the toilet.