How Little I Know

Oh, freshman Rebecca.

Oh, freshman Rebecca.

Seeing the freshmen on campus, easily spotted with their orientation tags and doe-eyed expressions, has made me feel old at the ripe-old age of 21. I’m also living at home and commuting to school this year, which is at once quite different and not that different from living on campus. When I was in my apartment last year, though, I could take a late-night run to CVS and feel like a carefree college student. Now, I’m back home by 4:00 pm most days and I can’t keep my eyes open past 10:00 pm. Then I wake up naturally around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning (I got up at seven on the first day of classes) and I work out before my classes. The idea of hiking all over campus in heels and a short dress, in search of the next best frat party, sounds incredibly exhausting. I can’t believe my nights used to begin at 10:00 pm. Now, I just want to get in a few rows of knitting before dropping dead on my pillow.

In the midst of feeling old and weary, I also feel like I don’t know the first thing about the world. As surely as developing a taste for dark chocolate and black coffee indicates advanced age, so does realizing how little you know. Socrates got it right when he said that wisdom is knowing that you know nothing. The past few weeks have conspired to teach me a lesson in humility. First, I walked into my Arabic placement test, confident in my self-taught language skills. I proceeded to guess my way through multiple choice sections, berate myself for not having memorized the months of the year, and spend the first five minutes of the speaking test in silence. I have never felt more stupid in my entire life. Later, I would receive an email notifying me that I’d tested into second semester Arabic by the skin of my teeth, emphasis on bare minimum score. Of course, I was relieved, but knowing I’d achieved this based on one lucky multiple choice guess did not make me feel good about myself.

Second, I’ve had no news from my agent for weeks and I dare not ask her for an update. I’m beginning to doubt my novel. I’m beginning to think that I’m not mature enough to write the kind of book I want to publish. I don’t even know what I want as a writer. Ideally, I’d like to be someone like Miguel de Cervantes of Don Quixote fame — write the book of books that entertains the masses, wipes out an entire existing genre, and is critically praised. But then again, he suffered in poverty and oblivion for 58 years until Don Quixote was published in 1605. Maybe I need 37 more years of life experience to write my masterpiece. Chef d’œuvre. Should I even try to publish now or hide my novels in a drawer as soon as I finish the last sentence?

Third, classes just started and this is by far the toughest semester I’ve had yet, intellectually. I don’t mind the workload, but it frustrates me incredibly that I can’t grasp the concepts of the readings I’m doing. In the first few days, I’ve been slogging through Don Quixote in its original Spanish, analyzing the psychology of leaders through Shakespeare’s Richard II, discovering the roots of surrealism in Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, and contemplating the absurdity of life (in French!) as defined by Albert Camus’ “Le mythe de Sisyphe”. My toughest class this semester, a senior seminar on governance, hasn’t even started yet. By the time I finish the day around dinnertime, my brain is fried.

Finally, my original advisor for my International Studies thesis referred me to another professor. I met with her this afternoon and she basically told me that I was out of my mind to try writing a thesis on a topic I’d had zero academic exposure to previously. She’s probably right, and since she’s the only one who can possibly supervise this project, I give up. Even if this turns out to be the best decision in the long run, right now I’m still smarting at being told I’m not good enough to accomplish something. The last time that happened, it was the Arabic placement test director, and I barely proved her wrong. This time, however, I can see that I’ve bit off more than I can chew and I’m admitting defeat.

All in all, I’m realizing more and more every day how little I know. But there’s one thing I do know — I love my classes this semester, but for the love of god, I do not want to go into academia.

Are you frustrated by the things you don’t know? How do you handle failure?

À plus tard,



2 thoughts on “How Little I Know

  1. Pingback: The Kind of Writer I Want to Be | Rebecca Cao

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I just read this post now. I’m 20–only a year younger than you but old enough to be able to relate to the feeling one gets when seeing all the doe-eyed freshmen on school campus.

    Once in a while it’s ok to be knocked off your high horse though. I think it keeps you grounded and humble so pride/arrogance doesn’t get to your head. And I’ve always lived by the quote that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”. Take it one step at a time, believe all things happen for a reason, and trust in your ability. Having faith in yourself goes a long way (;

    take care,

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