Alok Vaid-Menon discusses the relationship between success and the status quo in this TEDxMiddlebury talk. Alok draws upon experiences at Stanford and beyond, and performs spoken word poetry.
Alok’s body, gender, history, and trajectory are in a constant state of flux, hypocrisy, and contradiction. Alok performs with DARKMATTER, a queer South Asian spoken word duo and organizes with the Audre Lorde Project, a queer people of color organizing center in Brooklyn.
We Are Nothing (And That is Beautiful)
Full Text by Alok Vaid-Menon
I’d like to begin with a poem
remember the first day of freshman year of college when we were nothing but a name and a dot on the map at the front of the hall?
remember when we did not cry when our parents left us in those rooms too cramped for all of our expectations (and, perhaps, naïveté)?
remember the first time we met and you told me that you were still open, but you were pretty sure
you’d declare a major in philosophy or english because
you wept the first time you read the perks of being a wallflower
and we shared a sacred and unquenchable lust for bad science fiction
remember how hopeful we were –
that this school would
allow us to “find ourselves,”
“change the world,”
and other slogans we
recited from all the view books
the ones we stitched to our throats
when they asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up
so when you changed your major to econ,
so when you pledged that fraternity,
so when you replaced t-shirt with j-crew,
so when you accepted that ‘prestigious’ position at an investment bank
and expected me to be proud of you because you were going to ‘dismantle the system from within’
because you were different from ‘them’
i couldn’t help but wonder at what point
we become the tucked in shirt, the
wallet in pocket, the 9-5
we grew up fearing
you: whose love of learning stuck longer than the stickers your teachers adorned your homework with
you: who couldn’t fall asleep after reading marx in debate camp because things finally made sense again
you: who came to this university with a spirit unable to be disciplined
what happened to you?
you who sacrificed dream for diploma,
revolution for resume,
in that factory that produces profit out of potential prophet
where change falls from hearts into pockets
won’t teach you how to stop it
‘cuz gotta make that endowment rocket!
‘liberal arts college degree’ becomes a fancy way of saying
‘can spend 8 hours designing power point slides’
‘can forget all promises for promotion’
‘can quote classic literature at business dinners to seduce the clients’
so what if this education was really about making you so ignorant that you forgot how to think for yourself?
so what if the best way to dominate a world is to pretend that you are saving it?
you, the twenty something year old
idealist gone corporate in your
first suit throwing theory at a Wall that will swallow you up and spit you back on the Street discharged like the cold hard cash
of an ATM machine your heart beat reduced
to a series of transactions
when you hugged me goodbye i almost expected you to ask me for a receipt:
proof of purchase for a friendship you
consumed when it made cents for your
I’m sorry i did not make
the cut for the walking resume
you mistake as a body
I want to believe you because I want to believe in the power of a creativity undisciplined: that time we read our first book, saw our first eclipse, saw her smile. The joy and chaos of it all.
So what if it’s just chaos?
That space and time before friendship got postponed by deadlines
future segregated into interviews and internships
So what if we are really insignificant like the dot on the map from freshman year?
Why does it matter? What if we are nothing? What if that is beautiful?
What if we cried when our parents left us but didn’t tell each other?
What if I am crying because you are leaving me but will not tell you because I do not have the market value to make you listen
that I think you are worth more than any salary increase they will give you, that your mind cannot be transcribed on a spreadsheet of numbers, that I am waiting here for you, broke, but not broken,
remembering what you could have done
In the spirit of full disclosure I am here to recruit you. This is not a recruitment interview like the ones your career centers have prepared you for. This is not about your resume and job skills. I do not care where you went to school nor what you majored in. These things are no longer relevant in a world where we are losing some of our most creative minds to the epidemic of success.
This is not the crisis they tell you about on the news: that the economy is tanking, the world is at war. This is something different. This is a crisis of success. Too many things are working too well. The government isn’t broken; it is thriving. The universities are not broken; they are perfect. Our generation is not apathetic; it is flourishing.
This means that you are not actually a leader, an innovator, an exceptional student, and all of the other medals they have placed around your neck. These are merely accomplishments that you have been taught define your worth. Should you desire to be successful you will not actually bring human rights for all, eliminate poverty, end nuclear war, or fix Congress. If you go in with this mindset chances are you will be defeated like all the generations before us.
The key to changing the world is to fail to live up to its expectations.
My name is Alok Vaid-Menon and you could call me a fashionista, activist, or provocateur but I’d prefer to call myself a professional failure: someone who (at least my mother reminds me) was set for all the riches of the world but somehow took a detour on the way. You see, I grew up in a comfortable middle class Indian family where the expectation was that I’d always be some fancy schmancy academic. Both of my parents were PhD’s so from a young age the bar was set high: I remember getting chastised for talking on the phone rather than reading the New York Times. I had to learn how to argue for the legitimacy of everything. The key was finding a scholar who had written about something and then it became magically legitimate: this is how I discovered Critical Youtube Studies (it’s real).
It’s not that my parents pressured me to do well in school; it was more of a quiet expectation. This was part of our immigration story: to move to this country and not challenge its rules, but do better than everyone else. Which goes to say that from an early age success seemed like the only way to justify my parents’ journey across the ocean. When I got into Stanford my parents didn’t really congratulate me, it was something more, well…expected.
But when I got to school I started to see how violent success could actually be.
At my opening convocation – before we had actually done anything — I was told that I was surrounded by the future leaders of the world. Yet what I soon realized is that the way we were defining success was less about our impact and actually more about prestige.
In the beginning everyone seemed to have some brilliant idea of what it was going to take to change the world. But then at some point the methods became… shall we say…less specific. We were expected to congratulate the class leader– a self proclaimed ‘public servant’ – even though he accepted a job offer at a corporation that left hundreds of thousands of people starving. We were expected to applaud for a successful keynote speaker and not mention his vocal support for racist policies. Low and behold my classmates continued to flock to all of the talks by these ‘success stories’ not because of what they’d actually done, but because of this elusive concept of who they were.
Success has never really been about fixing problems; it’s been about perpetuating them. The pomp and circumstance around success masks over the incredible violence it takes to accomplish. Think about it: What happened to the thousands of students who were denied admission to your university? What happened to the hundreds of applicants who didn’t get the job you got? Who is made to suffer so that you can thrive? Do you even care?
Success is about self-promotion, not putting change into motion.
We are part of a generation whose elders expect us to fix the problems we inherited. But the irony is that we are bound to fail just like them because we are using the same tactics.
Success just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Ask yourself this:
If all the best universities really produced the most successful leaders then why do we still have so much corruption?
If all the success stories throughout time were really successful then why do we still find ourselves living in a violently unequal world?
I think it’s time we broke up with success, at least as it’s currently been defined.
I know you’re skeptical. This contradicts well everything we’ve been taught about how the world works. Success feels good and I am asking you to feel bad about it. I get in: I sound totally ridiculous. It’s like what would it have felt like in second grade to write your first love poem and have your teach respond “you failed!” Hear me out.
I didn’t always think this way. It took me failing — and recognizing how beautiful that was — to understand.
In 2011 I had the opportunity to work with transgender movement in South Africa. I was there to study the discrepancy between progressive legislation and the tremendous experience of violence. Naturally – as a type A model minority — things went according to plan. I got the most generous research grants, obtained cutting edge interviews and I genuinely felt that I had identified what could be fixed.
I returned to the US to start writing my thesis. In the process I got an email that one of the women I worked with in the office with had passed way. I had just listened to her interview the day before. Her name was Cym.
What is the point of a thesis written in a language inaccessible by the very people it is about? What is the point of a researcher who knows the name of theorists but not the names of her own neighbors? Who is invited to present a paper on a movement and who must die for it?
I never spent the time getting to know Cym because I was so fixated on being the perfect academic. I was so concerned with success that I glossed over the places where real transformative work could have occurred: the work of building trust, solidarity, empathy. The hard and invisible parts. I shared the same office with her for two months and I couldn’t tell you her favorite color, where she lived, and what made her weep for joy. The only parts of her that mattered were the parts that fit into my own analysis.
Success can be a violent and manipulative process. The thesis committee didn’t care about my ability to contribute to the movement, my ability to make the knowledge relevant and accessible by local organizers. The publishing of my thesis would do nothing to end violence in South Africa – if anything it would continue it so that future foreign researchers could come and study it for their own job promotion. Let’s call that a success story.
So I changed my topic. I deleted Cym’s interview. And I started thinking. Even though I failed at being an academic, I succeeded at becoming a better human being. Failure is, in its own way, another type of success.
The system isn’t broken.
Every problem in the world can actually be reconsidered as the successful implementation of an idea: the persistence of segregated schools is the accomplishment of institutionalized racism, the crisis of student debt reveals the success of the logic that we should pay for our education rather than be entitled to it, the persistence of violence against LGBT people reveals the clout of a currency of intolerance. These issues are not problems. They are victories; they are success stories.
The system isn’t broken. It’s working. It is working so well that it teaches us that it broken in order to keep us continually trying to improve it rather than building alternatives.
To be successful is actually to maintain the status quo. Few of us have thought about who determines the standards of success let alone challenged them. Because we have allowed the crisis of success to go unregulated, we find ourselves in a peculiar state of contradiction: celebrating so many success stories while by and large – the world is actually getting more unhealthy, unequal, and unbearable for the majority of people.
Those of us interested in solving these problems can no longer defer to the typical success sorry. We have to create new models of success: models that are not as superficial and selfish. Our models might be thought of as failures, and to some degree they are right. We are failing to accept a world of injustice. We are failing to buy into the myth of progress. We are failing to leave one another behind.
So I encourage you to fail more.
Consider how your passion has been stolen from you and manipulated into a career trajectory oriented toward status and not substance. Think about whose standards define success and what this success will actually and realistically accomplish for people beyond yourself.
And what I hope you will find by failing is that a whole new world of possibilities opens up for you: like the time I failed and remembered how to love strangers. There are possibilities for transformation hidden by our drive to succeed. This is actually the most important work: work like building relationships with your neighbors, crying together, making art and movements, healing, and all of the million skills that will never fit on your resume. These can become your new standards of success. Think about the parts of the day you do not tell people about, the gray areas that do not make it into your conversations and job interviews. These parts are the most exciting and transformative. Major in that feeling.
Personally I am trying my best to reconsider the parts of my life I used to think were insignificant and find beauty in them in. The most important work I do now is entering data in spreadsheets, ordering food for political organizing meetings, listening to people share their stories, and calling my mom every night to explain my politics. These things are not going directly change legislation, they will not give me an award or a degree, but I hope they are doing the slow work of tearing the fabric of our culture.
And this, I think, is what is going to change the world. It’s not going to happen tomorrow or the next day it’s going to happen when we stop aspiring to be successful and reaching to the top, but rather reaching our arms out and clinging onto one another desperately and ferociously. Remembering an interconnectivity that our schools, our careers, our own insecurities are trying to eradicate. Remembering that we are nothing and how beautiful that is because they won’t be able to anticipate what is coming.
I’d like to close with a poem to honor Cym and all of the other casualties of our success stories.
my summer in cape town: or, i’m sorry for using you
They will ask you
Whether your project can inflict ‘harm’
And you will respond: “minor discomfort” to expedite the review process
Her name is Cym,
And the arc of her smile mirrors her painted eyebrows,
On Mondays she asks you what you did over the weekend.
You do not tell her.
You are guilty of the conversion rate, how you can afford a club, a skin, a language that she never will.
She wants to know what it feels like to live in America
If you have a handsome boyfriend there who will buy you dinner sometimes
In your field research class they will teach you about the importance of obtaining consent.
Cym cannot sign your forms
So she communicates with the earnesty of hazel eyes
Smiles, tells you how she used to let heroine and men
Inside of her and sometimes couldn’t tell the difference,
Tells you how the cops would beat her in men’s prisons
In the international research workshop they will tell you not to get involved in your subjects’ personal life.
Your palms are sweaty, do not let them smear the ink.
Keep writing as she laughs and encourages you to ask more questions
An aneurysm is a blood-filled bulge in the wall of a blood vessel. When the size of an aneurysm increases, there is a significant risk of rupture, often resulting in death.
A researcher is an ambitious distraction at the back of the room. When the amount of information increases, there is a significant risk of an epiphany, often resulting in a published paper.
She will die nine months after your interview.
You can still remember the scent her smile
Dear Cym: In America I am learning how to think that I am better than you.
In fact, I am majoring in you. Don’t worry, they don’t use your name, keep it confidential
I am turning your body into a new theory
Academics work like Johns sometimes
Don’t worry they will pay me to use you,
I will cut you some of the profit in my acknowledgements.
My thesis will be in English,
In the accent you heard on re-runs of friends, Cym I’m sorry we weren’t friends, but I wanted to keep it professional
I promise I will print it on the whitest paper I can find,
So they can see the black in your words
I will bury you in a library,
I hope you will find home there
In this haunted house of quotations
Hanging on the shelves like skeletons
Listen to the recorded transcript on repeat,
Feel her laughter crawl into you,
Watch it spark the timber wood of your bones,
And burn your paper in the flames
And cry because we refuse to let people inside of us in fear of imploding
And cry because you have the story of a woman nested in the back of your throat and you do not deserve it.
What I really meant to ask is:
What theory did you use to stay warm at night?
Is, Can you teach me?