From a philosophical perspective, understanding the root of one’s desires is a fundamental aspect of self-knowledge and self-awareness. It is important to critically evaluate the underlying motivations and beliefs that drive our actions and decisions. Otherwise, we might sacrifice years of our lives to unresolved (and often repressed) notions of ourselves. In other words, we’re quite spectacular at gaslighting ourselves.
For instance, I wanted to pursue a doctorate in philosophy for a significant part of this year. However, after months of misguided thinking, I realized that my desire to pursue a Ph.D. was based on an idealized vision of what that career path looks like. But why did it take so long for me to realize that? Well, it’s because I habituated a pattern of thought that’s terribly lacking in critical reflection. A pattern that likes the poetic and incomplete notion of academia. It was a dark-academia-like obsession with being a professor — a scholar isolated in his ivory tower, studying up on the most obscure and convoluted subjects.
Maybe the intense focus and dedication required to complete a doctorate appeals to me because my subconscious wishes to avoid or repress unpleasant emotions, and thinks that filling my brain with obscure philosophy would accomplish that goal. Or maybe it’s a desire to prove myself academically.
But then, I dug a layer deeper — why did I fixate on such a rigid (yet incompletely formed) image of myself? What I came to find was that it was an ego problem. I don’t want to be forgotten in this world; I have a sense of uniqueness and ego so inflated that I was able to convince myself that I’ll be the next Kant, the next Marx, the next Chomsky. But, again, why? Why would I care? Well, it’s because I want a sense of immortality. It’s probably not so uncommon for college students who have nothing but potential and angst to want to be seen.
This self-obsessive behavior is perpetuated by a culture of mysterious idols, the “genius” figures that people just can’t seem to figure out — someone like Alan Turing, whose life was dramatized in the movie “The Imitation Game.” Mystical, unique, creative — whichever label you prefer — this culture feeds on public figures’ personalities instead of the ideas they contribute. An exaggerated and unfortunate symptom of this is “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” a popular reality show that documents the life of an incredibly rich family. They’re not particularly unique or funny or anything. The Kardashian phenomenon is analogous to Coke, which Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek believes to be the symbolic epitome of consumerism. It’s a drink that doesn’t quench your thirst or supply you with nutrients; it appeals to short-term enjoyment, fed by the endless American desire to be stimulated with nonsense like “Keeping up with the Kardashians.”
How do reality TV and Coke connect to career ambitions? Great question!
We perceive careers as something to be consumed rather than an act to be performed. They are fetishized for their aesthetics rather than valued for their real-world qualities. In a messy soup of ideology, my love for intellectualism was perverted by a prideful lust to be some sort of immortalized household name. I didn’t truly care about a doctorate; I just wanted to be a figure, like the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who would hang out with artists, writers and all sorts of characters for a sense of importance.
I said I liked philosophy and capitalism asked: How much? Would you balance three assistant jobs at three community colleges to pay rent and buy groceries? How serious is your love for philosophy?
When I actually explored the world of academia, I was underwhelmed and defeated. Doctoral candidates compete endlessly and often don’t secure tenure-track positions. They’re not just reading whatever they want; they’re reading hyper-specialized research and expected to pump out papers to stay afloat, sacrificing meaningful long-term intellectual development for consistent output. They’re setting up office hours for undergrads to ask them pretentious questions and constantly re-applying for lecturer positions.
They’re not working in some ancient library; they’re overstressed in an apartment that has a loud AC unit and a neighbor that watches TV a bit too loud, considering the paper-like thinness of the walls. That’s the bleak reality of what it means to be a successful academic. A reality so serious and draining that it makes my original conception seem erotically outdated.
In somewhat of a nihilist dream I recently had, I was a professor in a crowded tiny little office. I had published a book or two that was read by four people, one of whom was my cousin. I didn’t add anything groundbreaking to our envelope of knowledge. My legacy was tainted by a facade. Perhaps it’s not so bleak for those who neurotically enjoy philosophy, but I don’t. I want to have nice things and waste time and sleep in and just live outside the capitalist vacuum for like 10 seconds. If it means reading as a nightstand activity, so be it. I know that that’s a bit cynical, but it’s true. Perhaps what’s a bit more uplifting is the fact that at least I realized my true intentions for pursuing a doctorate in philosophy. But this dream revealed a pivotal truth: In order to pursue a Ph.D., I must thoroughly enjoy the content of the subject, not the unfounded implications.
Adam Allouch, a sophomore at the University of Michigan who hopes to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience, has the right idea: “In the lab, I enter a micro-world of curiosity and drive. I find a poetic relationship with neuroscience research, erected on the investigation of the most complex yet riveting topics, such as the nervous system, neurodegenerative disease and even consciousness. A career in research would allow me to direct the focus of my work and delve into mechanisms and phenomena that are of fundamental interest to me.” In contrast to my blurry and somewhat misguided reasoning, Allouch has a genuine and developed reason to pursue a Ph.D.
There is a popular sentiment that those who “sell” themselves to Amazon are less virtuous than those who dedicate themselves to research. But this argument looks at the issue from the wrong angle. The motivation for our career goals is a more interesting point to analyze. For instance, I realized that my reasons for pursuing a doctorate weren’t any nobler than those working for Amazon. I wanted attention and fame. They wanted money. Both drives were cultivated by an individualistic and competitive ideology borne from the toxicity of capitalism.
Ultimately, it’s important to question and explore the underlying reasons behind our desires and to be mindful of the potential impact of societal and cultural influences on our beliefs and motivations. This self-reflection can help to prevent repressed motivations and apparent paradoxes, leading to a more authentic and realized life.
Ammar Ahmad is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.