Personal Statement: Forging an Iron Man

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
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By Eric Ferguson, Daily Columnist
Published March 9, 2015

I can tell you about three important and seemingly haphazard aspects of the person I was just prior to starting college. First, I was obsessed with grades. Second, I actively avoided situations where I would have to make a decision. And third, I had a not-so-minor obsession with the alternate universes created in the genres of science fiction and high fantasy.

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All three of these aspects of me remain unchanged; thankfully, many other things have changed. Four years ago (and in some respects as little as one year ago), I was incapable of actively thinking about my future and unable to fully acknowledge the existence of perspectives other than my own. These attitudes must have led to many unknown-unknowns; I’m slightly shocked more of them haven’t come back to bite me in the ass.

But over these last four years I have learned. Now, I have never felt more confident in who I am and what I want to do. Hard work, conscious reflection, massive privilege, and dumb luck are what enabled this; they are factors in an equation too complex for me to solve. If college is a time for young adults to broaden their minds, though, I think I have succeeded.

However, I’m not done. There’s time left still, and I want to use part of it to decisively engage questions like “How’s your semester going?” “What are you doing after graduation?” and (most importantly) “If you could be any fictional character, who would you choose?” from which I would’ve shrunk as a freshman here. This is my chance to answer them.

***

“How’s your semester going?” is a favorite of every adult I know, and, until this last semester, it always caused me somewhat of a panic. My parents pushed me to achieve in school from an early age; they wanted me to do well. I took that initial push and slowly magnified it. Over time, it became an obsession at the core of my entire life.

This obsession propelled me to great heights, but it had a darker side as well. Until the last few months, I felt as if grades corresponded to my life. I felt that if I didn’t get nearly straight-A grades, I would be some kind of worthless waste of a person. That attitude transferred to other facets of my life as well. I have often felt as if one misstep among friends or at an internship would somehow render me worthless. As such, I was utterly fixated on external evaluations of my work and my decisions.

I have a certain professor from last semester to thank for helping me get over this fixation. In his class, he made me grapple with some of the toughest questions out there — those pertaining to peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation in situations of mind-boggling complexity.

Halfway through that class, I became despondent. I had spent twenty hours working on a single three-page paper that was supposed to be a reflection on what I had learned so far in his class, and I thought what I turned in was incoherent. I had no idea how to answer that prompt, and I felt as if I were a dead man.

To my great surprise, I ended up with an A in that class and some variant of an A in all my others. However, I have no confidence that these grades are comparable to each other. Unlike my other professors whose assignments and exams almost always demanded some kind of definitive answer to a question, this professor was different. His goal wasn’t for his students to develop such answers to the questions he posed; he knew life isn’t that simple. Instead, he challenged us almost every single class period to state what we had learned.

I think his overall aim was to have us engage with intense complexity, and to make people like me realize that there are no “answers” or “grades” in real life. He taught me that while utter dependence on external evaluation might seem helpful in school, it is no way to live. I cannot always wait for someone else to evaluate my work and my decisions. I must do so first. He called that job self-leadership; it’s one I’m finally ready to take on.

***

In the past, my answer to “What are you doing after graduation?” has often been silence. The future wasn’t something I was at all interested in thinking about, mostly because I was so fixated on what grades I was getting in school. But it was also partly because I never really considered the fact that graduation would eventually happen.

This irrational attitude manifested in many forms, an early one of which being how I applied to a single university coming out of high school. Once here, I attempted to be busy and repeatedly told myself that I was. I learned if I presented that to the world, people generally wouldn’t ask about my future plans. I let my academic and personal interests run amok, giving little conscious thought to their organization or to where they might lead me later on.

But these interests did develop — albeit ever so slowly — and as they did, I came to know what job opportunities exist for the policy-obsessed nerd I am. My interests coalesced into two internships in Washington, D.C. They’ve given me a valuable head start in the job search, and I will always be grateful to the people I met in each. Moreover, I’ve realized that everything I’ve been able to do — from being admitted to the Ford School of Public Policy to co-founding a student organization to forging what I hope are lifelong networks of friends — has ultimately depended not on abstractions, but on real people. I still need to remind myself of this point often, and as I move forward in life I resolve to do so until it’s something I can’t possibly forget.

***

The last (and most important) question is “If you could be any fictional character, who would you choose?” This one cuts deep, as I’ve always loved immersing myself in fictional universes. The transcendent abilities of characters such as Ender Wiggin, Will Stanton, Lyra Belacqua, and Tony Stark/Iron Man captured my entire imagination as a child and young adult. I would want to be whichever character happened to be in front of me. All seemed to have some power or superhuman understanding that allowed them to shape the course of their respective universes—all of which seemed so much better than my boring, real one.

The only answer I can ever remember giving is Iron Man — as in Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of that character. It was a slightly ridiculous choice. Iron Man is a suit, not a person. The person who built it is Tony Stark, and what gave rise to the suit itself was his discovery that the power core he built to keep bits of shrapnel suspended in his chest could be put to other, grander uses.

There certainly are benefits to being such a rich and brilliant man as Stark; however, there are massive risks to consider as well. In the movies, the power of Iron Man is not something Stark tends to handle very well. He tends to think he knows what’s best for others, and through acting on those notions he does at least as much harm as he does good. It’s something I’ve only recently come to realize myself, and I hope that realization will keep me far away from such situations in the future.

***

Now, some real answers. My semester is going well. My three classes are some of the best I’ve ever taken, and I’m having fun trying to make the most of my remaining time on campus. I’m shooting for a job in D.C. after graduation; our world is an unjust and scary one, and I think I can do something about that. And I would say to the last question that I wouldn’t want to pick a fictional character. As fantastic as they are, these people don’t exist, and their worlds are fascinating without my being in them.

I have definitely evolved over the last four years. I have changed and been re-formed in ways that touch my soul.

But I still catch myself thinking about that Iron Man suit. I’m somehow compelled to see myself inside it. I cannot resist the imagery of using some great creation of mine to create change, a creation that draws its power from the heart of me.

I know now that when I act on this temptation, I am obligated to use great care. I know also that this obligation is a weighty thing.

But I will shoulder it anyways. I will try through what I do to give back; to shine some small light into the shadowed corners of the world in which I live.

And I think this obligation is the greatest gift my time at Michigan could ever give me.