I Am Who I Am

March 2, 2012
Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
I began reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead just to enter the essay contest. I finished it pondering the irony of this book being the subject of a contest.
The protagonist, avant-garde architect Howard Roark, when expelled from the Stanton Institute of Technology for refusing to conform to the respectable, established standards of classical architecture, asks, "Why is it so important—what others have done? Why does it become sacred by the mere fact of not being your own?" Herein lie the premises for the entire novel: Roark does not need to imitate or be approved by others to consider himself accomplished.
Obviously, it's necessary to receive others' approval in order to go forward in life; we couldn’t get good grades, a driver's license, or admittance to a university otherwise. But in more personal matters, when we have to decide who we are and what we love, we still don’t stop thinking of what others think. How we dress, talk, eat, work, and dream is a reflection of what we have seen others do. I set The Fountainhead aside at page 174, after Roark's words: "I don’t enter competitions." I'd decided to enter the essay contest because some accomplished persons at school had won in past years, so that meant it was a sufficiently prestigious carrot to bite at, and if I won, maybe I would have a better chance at getting into an Ivy.
Roark basically shaves everything conventional artists do down to a mindless desire for their clients' acceptance. I've decided that doesn’t have to apply to me, all the time, anyways. These essays will still have to go through the admissions committee before they land in the "admitted" pile. But after all this, when I write for pleasure, for myself, and for the pure joy of writing, I can answer Howard Roark’s great question, “Why is anyone and everyone right, so long as it’s not yourself?” And I will only say, “It’s not.”

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