Column | March 3
Just one of the many texts and missed calls I received when I woke up last fall after my friend, as a light-hearted prank, had changed my Facebook status to “Leaving for the semester, can’t wait to see you guys next year!”
While I quickly resolved the confusion, informing my very worried mother and my less concerned friends that I was in fact not leaving for the next semester (probably to the dismay of my more vocal and critical readers), the response from those close to me left a lasting impression.
Instead of being a potential for alternative growth or creativity, the idea of leaving was considered a rash judgment. To them, my announcement was not just simply a change in location but conjured up words such as “giving up,” “failure” and “wasted potential.” The initial treatment I received were questions over what went wrong, as if the mere idea of leaving in and of itself were irrational.
And who can blame them? Respected role models like former President Bill Clinton, saying the “main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit,” or businessman Ted Turner, suggesting that winners never quit, leaves a long-lasting impression. To leave is to give up — a public admittance of defeat.
This is especially true at Princeton, where our obsession with achieving success, getting good grades and obtaining internships consumes many of our peers. College is not just a place for intellectual enhancement on an individual level but also an opportunity to improve oneself relatively before pitting ourselves against each other in a limited and sluggish job market. We acknowledge the competition and place the benchmark of four years in our head as the norm, seeing any deviation from that as a sign of something gone awry and the beginning of the path towards failure.
Princeton is especially strong in promoting the four-year course. From its strict policy of not admitting transfer students to its residential college system, Princeton goes to great lengths to tie our identity to the four-year mentality. This differs from larger state universities, which are much more flexible with the time it takes to graduate, allowing for early graduation for some and offering five-year plans for others. And in the process we make ourselves conform to a pre-determined standard.
Even though my Facebook status was simply over a simple break, a deviation from the norm, it was viewed as sacrilegious. While many acknowledge that academic stress can often be hard and for some even unbearable, the option of quitting as a legitimate choice seems to escape the minds of many. When news spreads that someone takes time off or even leaves entirely, questions arise over why the person would risk their degree. The assumption quickly forms around the idea that the decision may be rash or not fully thought out.
We have failed to empathize, and in doing so, we have marginalized those who “quit.” Through collective dismissal, we have delegitimized what to many may be a reasonable or even preferable option. To leave Princeton for a semester to work or try something new almost never crosses the minds of our peers. We are programmed to follow the four-year course.
In the process, we kill potential innovation. From the well-known dropouts, such as Harvard’s Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, to one of Princeton’s own dropouts, Seth Priebatsch, who would have been in the class of 2007 and now owns SCVNGR, a mobile game start up, many who have “quit” in the past have found success in unconventional ways. Yet when we repeatedly create this societal expectation that we need to finish college to be successful, we disincentivize those who may be able to better improve themselves outside the collegiate system.
But what if that is not the case? Maybe it is time to redefine what quitting means. After all, some of the most successful leaders and innovators have quit in their past — either for the purposes of taking a break or to explore alternatives. For many, quitting is not equivalent to failure but rather an attempt to find one’s calling or to try something new. Now is a time for exploration and growth. Especially when the pressures of trying to pay rent and living day-to-day are much less of a concern, it is better than ever to experiment and take risks.
Maybe this concept of quitting as inherently negative is an endemic part of our culture that we may never be able to remove. However, history has shown there are multiple paths to success. We should realize quitting may not always be the end, but can, for some, also be the beginning.
Benjamin Dinovelli is a sophomore from Mystic, Conn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.