Fury and Freedom: Four Years at Amherst College

The withering criticism of my super-ego had been my constant companion, telling me that I haven’t achieved enough, that my time is limited, that I’ve amounted to nothing important so far. Yet this winter break during a trip to Niseko, when I descended into a luxurious mineral onsen after an exhilarating day of snowboarding, that voice wasn’t asking how I could justify such an indulgence. Instead it was just silence and smothering clouds of steam.

Being smothered was a familiar feeling. I drowned my fears of inadequacy before by diving headfirst into busyness. My first three years at Amherst, I took an extra class 5 out of 6 semesters. I excused myself from academic overload only for summer internship recruiting junior fall, where my homework was networking and I skipped class for interviews. Sophomore fall, I checked my bank account and decided to test the limits of my masochism by working 40 hours a week at 6 jobs. Travel became my new job when I went abroad sophomore spring to AIT-Budapest. I tried to combine a different city every weekend with rigorous classes and ended up spending weekends hibernating in my Budapest studio out of exhaustion.

Some people pursue simplicity. I, however, was a relentless optimizer who operated on the assumption of scarcity. It was a world-view and lifestyle born out of a comically frugal family in contrast to a society unashamed of conspicuous consumption. My parents were blessed with an expatriate engineer’s pay package, but I lived with 淘宝 (taobao) clothes, napkins as toilet paper, and plastic bag hoarding. Education was the exception. I went to an international high school in Shanghai, where the rich kids rocked Bape and Balenciaga while the children of the merely upper-middle class turned Papa John’s Tuesday buy-one-pizza-get-one-free into a weekly lunch tradition. I emerged from the milieu of anxious wealth seeking the highest quality I could afford at the highest efficiency I could maintain.

When I stepped onto Amherst College’s verdant campus I decided to immerse myself in the life of the mind, taking classes in Arabic, political science, religion, and LJST (law jurisprudence and social thought). Just as importantly, I wanted to make the most out of the “college experience,” exploring and partaking in all that would be difficult to do after Amherst. That meant crew. That meant flipping burgers at Schwemm’s. That meant attending visiting lectures or company visits or alumni talks.

For a while, it worked. I was busy. I had things to do, places to be. I felt important and valuable and productive. Many returning alumni with impressive careers advised us to have fun and enjoy ourselves in college. I dismissed such advice out of hand. I thought I was making the best of my station in life, that if I had to pay exorbitant sums and 4 years of life for a degree, I might as well extract as much value out of it as I could.

Happiness, however, was elusive. My romanticized view of an American liberal arts education was promptly disillusioned freshman year, and I chafed at the value system of contemporary college politics. Fortunately, junior year I was welcomed into a group of fellow deviants. Although frictions turned into frustrations, and frustrations into bouts of fury, I had a place of refuge and belonging.

Yet it wasn’t until senior year that my sanctimonious restraint wore thin and I gave myself permission to have fun. I stepped back onto campus senior year fretting about whether or not to write a thesis, to lay a capstone on my academic career that I could look back on with pride. Something, however, was different. During the summer I had secured a full-time offer, and it felt like the end of high school, where there was nothing to accomplish except to try and enjoy yourself as much as possible before college started. I moved into a suite with friends who treated school as a chore to be dealt with, instead playing 4 tables of online poker simultaneously or building a new feature for their website. The overseer in my head once again told me I hadn’t earned the right to enjoy myself. This time I said screw it. My signing bonus wasn’t going to spend itself.

Senior year I decided to forgo a thesis, I received my lowest grade at Amherst, and I dropped my Statistics major. Yet I do not consider it a fall from grace. For degeneracy opened the door to a radically liberating way of being, one where I was not driven by external obligation but rather genuine enthusiasm. The labored satisfaction I received from suffering to win at someone else’s game paled in comparison to the invigorating joy I experienced from doing what I wanted, guilt-free.

Maybe I would’ve been happier at first if I had gone to a larger university. The small size of Amherst meant that I knew people who I didn’t even want to know. I switched friend groups frequently my first two years. But I don’t know if I would have changed that much. The estrangement I felt at Amherst forced me to question the way I lived, and the friends and mentors I found along the way opened my world to new possibilities. I’ve always liked people who challenge my world-view, when thoughts collide and sparks fly. Yet I never imagined that four years of friction, frustration, and fury would lead to freedom.