The Age of Competing Realities

By Tom Pavone, University of Chicago

We really do live in a world of competing and juxtaposed realities.

On the one hand we see economic malaise and collapse left and right. On the other, we see unequivocal opportunities to change the way we do things. On the one hand, we see record numbers of kids going to college for the first time. On the other, we see that college degrees may not take you as far as you’d hoped. And depending on your mood, depending on what television show you’re watching, and depending on who you’re talking to, at any given moment one reality may appear more ‘real’ than the other.

I’ve experienced this roller coaster ride of perspective so many times in recent months that I’ve decided it would be a humorous, and perhaps illuminating, exercise to document two competing realities that characterize the life of today’s college student. The optimistic perspective finds that this is an age of opportunity. The pessimistic perspective argues that we live in an age of limits.

I define these perspectives as “realities” because they feel real to us when we are conditioned by our environment to accept them. But this begs the question: is one “reality” in fact “real” whereas the other “reality” is nothing more than an illusion? Is one perspective correct while the other is wrong?

I’m not inclined to respond to these questions, because I feel that today, as always, the only illusion is to believe that we all experience the world the same way.

The first reality: You live in a world of opportunity

Have you ever stopped to think of how powerful ideas have become?

We really do live in an age where ideas matter and where past constraints have evaporated into thin air. We live in a world where a cocky, socially awkward, less-than handsome geek named Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of college, persuade others to believe and invest in his idea, and make billions of dollars within a few years of turning 20.

We live in a world where a wealthy entrepreneur named Peter Thiel will voluntarily pay kids $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue their dreams. We live in a world where a 30-year old named Aaron Schock can, despite his youth, be elected by his fellow citizens to the House of Representatives. We live in an age where we’ve elected the first black president. In short, in today’s world, it’s ideas, not age or race, that end up mattering most.

We live in an age that’s more interconnected than ever before. We can talk, see, and interact with each other across national borders, socioeconomic boundaries, and cultural divides. And through dialogue comes understanding. The result is that today, diversity isn’t a source of tension and conflict, but a source of innovation and learning.

We live in a world that’s more environmentally conscious than any generation of the past three centuries. We are moving away from exploiting the earth for our own self-interest and recognizing that what’s in the planet’s interest is also in our best interest. And in any lab where research is conducted to explore alternative energy sources, college students are likely to be playing a vital role.

We live in a world where the models of yesterday are history, where the ideas of today are outdated and where the innovations of tomorrow are being driven by us—college students. It’s a world of change, of continuous progression and of unwavering innovation. And we’re the ones who are steering the ship.

So the next time you read an article about America’s decline or you hear your friends complain that they can’t find jobs, remember that opportunity lies in the places you least expect it. For in today’s world, if you decide to follow your dreams and cash-in on your ideas, you can achieve a success that would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Just ask Mark Zuckerberg. Or Aaron Schock. Or Barack Obama. Ask them if they ever thought they’d get to where they are now, and they’d all answer “no.” But their dreams told them “yes,” and it turns out that it was their imaginations, rather than their rationality, that made the better prediction.

The American Dream isn’t dead—it’s becoming real.

The second reality: You live in a world of constraints

Hey, would you mind paying for my drink? I knew I didn’t have any money left to buy myself another shot, but I was too drunk to think about it and too depressed to care. Sure, I’ll be hungover tomorrow, but it’s not like I have to go to work tomorrow or anything!

And that’s not for lack of trying.

They told me that if I studied my way through high school and attended college I’d have no problem finding a job. But they failed to mention that I’d be $20,000 in debt by the time I graduated. They also curiously left out the fact that the “job” would either be temporary or unpaid. Oh, and they also failed to predict that all of a sudden the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression would rear it’s ugly head.

I’ve been lied to. We’ve all been deceived.

We have been told that we can make a difference. We have been told that if we work hard we can succeed. We have been told that the American Dream is alive and well. But it was George Carlin who was right when he said, “it’s called the American Dream because you’d have to be asleep to believe it.”

A college degree. Good grades. A hundred job applications. What did all this work get me? Two interviews. No offers. Do you see anything wrong with this picture? I sure as heck do.

I’m now in debt and I can’t find a job. “Why don’t you go to graduate school?,” the optimists ask. Well, let me list the reasons. I’d have to pay thousands of dollars to prep for one more exam and so that I can apply to programs where I have only a ten percent chance of being accepted and where I will be asked to pay $50,000 a year for tuition alone. Tell me, optimists, can you stop pretending that we are characters in Alice in Wonderland and rejoin the real world?

And please, stop telling me about Mark Zuckerberg. He’s the exception that confirms the rule. Sure, a few of us will get lucky, but the vast majority of our generation will suffer. We will suffer because for years we were told that our world would be a better one than that of our parents. We will suffer from the economic mess perpetrated by past generations that will hamper our ability to be financially stable for decades to come. We will suffer because we are playing against the odds and because the game is rigged.

The new rule of evolution is not “survival of the fittest,” but “survival of the risk-averse.” We need to lower our expectations, get real, and realize that success is as elusive a target as ever before.

And there is nothing that this damn piece of paper they call my bachelor’s degree can do about it.



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


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