I recently read a book chapter by William Zinsser called “The Tyranny of the Final Product.” As an almost-second-semester senior history major at Macalester, I was not particularly keen on reading yet another article about how to write an essay. However, as I looked it over, I started to reevaluate not only the way I’d been writing essays but also how I’d been thinking about the future.
Zinsser insists that writing is a process and that often the most important part of writing—learning to ask unique questions and make novel connections—is frequently lost because we as students are too obsessed with what our paper is going to “end up as.” We are fixated on the idea of some kind of golden essay whose punchy and concise thesis is both so unquestionable and so original that it cannot be critiqued. As we look for research questions or essay topics this shimmering apparition constantly haunts our thought process, vetoing anything too complex or limiting the search to evidence that is obviously related to our desired outcome.
“The Tyranny of the Final Product” argues that this robs writing of much of its potential—by closing off avenues of inquiry early for the sake of expediency, students miss the most exciting new questions, comparisons, or opportunities for exploration. After finishing this article, I sat back in my chair and looked at my computer screen. My browser’s tabs were full of nauseatingly specific graduate programs, internships, and possible jobs. All my stress was derived from two questions: What if I make the wrong choice? and What choice is going to get me to x the quickest?
While I certainly believe that being motivated, passionate and having direction is critical, I have been asking the wrong questions. Let’s be honest, it’s a little naïve to assume that there is some kind of linear, bullet-pointed action plan that will get us from here to our dreams if we only follow the precisely correct sequence. Talk to almost any adult about what they wanted to do in middle school, high school, college, postgraduate and beyond, and you’ll discover their life was a series of switchbacks and detours and reconsiderations. Certainly, some people have known they wanted to be a lawyer or a teacher or an artist since they were five and followed a direct path to their dream, but I think it’s a mistake to assume that’s the path we’re all going to take.
Like ‘The Tyranny of the Final Product’ suggests about writing, more broadly I think our culture pushes us to know what our ‘end’ looks like. Almost as soon as children can talk we ask ‘what they want to be when they grow up?’ It seems like earlier and earlier we expect young people to have their five-year plan squared away because God help them if they don’t know which med school they’ll apply to in the eleventh grade.
As someone who is excited and terrified about the prospect of creating the person I want to be, I’m going to offer you some advice: Instead of figuring out what you want to be, figure out who you want to be. I’m not belittling those who have a plan, but I would encourage you—maybe just as an intellectual exercise—to expand the parameters of who (and also what) you think you can be. Follow your passions even if they seem vastly dissimilar and throw yourself into things that inspire you to create or change something. Most importantly, make decisions that are significant to the person, not the profession, you want to become, and remember that the best lives are open to exploration and revision.